When I ran into the No. 5 Umami in a Tube folks at the Fancy Food Show, I was intrigued. Umami is the “fifth flavor” after sweet, spicy, bitter and salty. It’s the meaty, satisfying taste found in many Asian dishes as well as an intense, cooked down tomato sauce on pasta or pizza. I tried both the original and Far Eastern flavors and liked it, and they agreed to send me samples so I could do a taste test against “real” umami created from scratch.
My assumption was that they were working with clever food scientist ingredients and chemicals, but it turns these guys are the real deal. The components they use are some of the same I was planning to incorporate in my own concoction. The original, created by UK chef Laura Santtini, includes anchovies, tomato paste, black olives, porcini mushrooms and parmesan. Some Amazon reviewers have complained that it contains MSG but that’s incorrect; the “glutamates” are naturally occurring, in the mushrooms. The Far Eastern, which is vegan, is made with miso, garlic and ginger, among other things. It’s a collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisha.
I’d say the top note of the original is olives, and for the Far Eastern it’s ginger. That gives you some idea how to use them. You can’t go wrong with a generous squirt of the original into a pasta sauce that needs help and the Far Eastern mixes up nicely with Asian noodles to which you might also add some chopped green onions, sesame oil and a bit of chopped protein. (The included recipe recommends mixing the concentrate into a gravy with mirin, butter and cornstarch for thickening which is a good idea to extend it.)
The 3-oz. tubes cost around $5 each, which is not a bad deal considering each one will probably flavor three entrees and is a lot less work than putting together the ingredients on your own. They’ve available on Amazon and at high end gourmet retailers. If you want to go ahead and do your own taste test, here’s a from-scratch recipe that looks promising.