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Are there natural spices that taste umami? I don't want to use MSG in my food, but I'd like to add some umami flavour.

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Note that this isn't the same as What foods are high in umami - I'm asking about spices. –  configurator Mar 13 '11 at 17:42
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Are you or someone you know/love allergic to MSG? If not, what is your opposition to using it? It is a naturally-occurring substance but as with many things, a small number of people are allergic to it. –  Dear Home Cook Mar 13 '11 at 18:43
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Umami is literally defined by glutamates; if you don't want to use MSG, and the foods you're making aren't already high in glutamates, then you're out of luck. If the unfounded mass hysteria over MSG has somehow turned you off of it, rest assured that it is perfectly safe. –  Aaronut Mar 13 '11 at 21:11
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@Aaronut: I don't care about mass hysteria but the people I cook for might :) –  configurator Mar 14 '11 at 12:47
    
@configurator: Wikipedia says that “Currently, most of the world production of MSG is by bacterial fermentation in a process similar to wine, vinegar, yogurt and even chocolate.” How could anyone get hysterical over something that's made in a way similar to chocolate?! ;) –  Rinzwind Jun 1 '12 at 20:31

11 Answers 11

Pretty much umami tastes of umami, spices taste of whichever spice. It's rather like saying which spices taste salty because I don't want to use salt - only spices with salt are going to taste salty

If you don't want to use synthetic MSG you can always use a 'natural' source of it but it's still the same chemical

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MSG is not the only glutomate around, is it? –  configurator Mar 13 '11 at 21:49
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@configurator there are different salts of glutamic acid, but I wouldn't eat them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutamic_acid_(flavor) –  ghoppe Mar 13 '11 at 22:10

Though not exactly a spice, fish sauce (nam pla in Thai i believe) is a great source of umami.

Besides MSG you are not going to find umami-rich spices. Not exactly. There are certain foods are a produced as a concentration (such as fish sauce) to maximize glutamates (that which makes umami, umami) and others that are used as an umami source such as the rind from a block of Parmesan cheese in certain soup stocks.

Word of caution about fish sauce: It is very powerful and cannot be used nearly as ubiquitously as MSG. It is very pungent and a drop too many in a bowl of soup will make its presence known, and that is not that you want. With that said, fish sauce is my secret weapon in the kitchen. I use it in any savory dish that lacks depth of flavor (umami.) I've used in classic chilis, all sorts of soups and chowders and of course in Asian-style stir fries.

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As others have said, there are few spices with umami. However, if you're looking for something that you can use in the same way as a spice, then I suggest simply blitzing dried porcini (cep) mushrooms in a blender or grinder into a fine powder and using that. It has a deep umami flavour - try rubbing it on a steak before cooking and you'll be blown away.

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Sounds like a really good trick - I'll try it! –  configurator Mar 14 '11 at 12:49
    
This mushroom powder is fantastic -- but be aware that unlike most spices, it won't completely dissolve in solution. You'll be left with tiny grains. –  Martha F. Mar 14 '11 at 15:50
    
Yes. It works best in a dish with some liquid or in a sauce. If you are using it as a steak rub it needs to be totally powdered, or you can blitz it coarsely, then soak in boiling water for 30 minutes, and strain through muslin/cheesecloth to make a kind of super-mushroomy duxelle. –  ElendilTheTall Mar 14 '11 at 19:42

The two things that come to mind are Yeast extract (Marmite, Vegemite, Cenovis etc.) and soy sauce. I don't know if you'd classify those as spices, though.

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My secret weapon, before I became the rampant vegetarian I am today, used to be Worcestershire sauce. It is quite high in umami, probably because of the anchovies involved. For that reason, other ideas would be anchovie paste, or any far eastern fish sauce.

Aside from that, any reduced mushroom stock would serve you well. I sometimes pour boiling water over dried shiitake mushrooms and let it sit for a while. Then I reduce the liquid and use that as flavouring.

I'm still looking for a good vegetable (not animal/bacteria/fungus) source of umami. Let me know if you find one. Sadly, I don't think one exists.

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Tomatoes are high in umami if I'm not mistaken. –  configurator Mar 14 '11 at 12:45
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Those are all good sources of umami but none of them are spices. This answer should be posted to the original question. –  Aaronut Mar 14 '11 at 13:52
    
Seaweed is very high in umami. See umamiinfo.com/umami-rich_food –  Martha F. Mar 14 '11 at 15:51
    
@MarthaF. Seaweed is an algae not a vegetable. –  Jay Jun 4 '13 at 17:11

I found an article that uses umami interchangeably with savory. It touches on the chemical composistion but offers suggestions of lists of spices and flavors that bring that umami/savory flavor out in a dish. Here's the article: http://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2005/434.html

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Again, not a spice, but similar to ElendilTheTall's suggestion of powdered mushrooms would be to grind up dried kelp. You might be able to find 'dashi kombu' powder in some asian markets, or order it online.

(note, there are other 'dashi' powders, and some of them come from fish; you specifically want 'kombu')

I've personally never used the stuff, so I don't know how readily it'll absorb into other foods; you might need to experiment with it.

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One thing I use to minimize salt is Bragg's Liquid Aminos. I'm not one to make a claim about the health benefits, but I can attest to the following from their site:

• Gourmet healthy alternative to Soy, Tamari, and Worchestershire Sauce

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Turmeric is the superstar spice to add umami - unfortunately, it also adds stain factor.

It works best with fatty/ oily dishes.

Mace and nutmeg can add umami with meat dishes.

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I like to use bonito powder spice and red miso powder spice. You can use them on everything, and they're gluten-free!

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We generally avoid recommending specific vendors; bonito powder and miso powder are good suggestions, though, so I'll simply edit your answer. –  Jefromi Jun 4 '13 at 22:09

As far as spices go, there are not a lot of options.

Kombu has a fairly clean umami-taste, so as a umami-spice it might be your best option. Usually it is used to make stock, although ground kombu could be used like a spice. http://www.cookingissues.com/2010/01/19/umami-nation-kombu-dashi-smackdown/

The other option that could be used like a spice would be ground mushrooms, particularly shiitake, maybe porcini. Of course this is going to give you a strong mushroom-taste along with the umami. Some people recommend to combine them with miso for more umami and a more balanced taste.

While it can't just be added to the dish to do so, star anise can bring a lot of umami when used right. Specifically, the anethole in it can react with sulfur to create umami-flavors. It's an old chinese trick, and has been rediscovered by Heston Blumenthal, who likes to lightly caramelize onions (as a sulphur-source) with ground star anise (half a star anise per large onion). http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2005/jun/11/foodanddrink.shopping4

Non-spice options:

  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Miso
  • Parmesan
  • Marmite/Vegemite
  • vine-ripened Tomatoes
  • Fish Sauce
  • Anchovies
  • various fermented bean/fish pastes/sauces

One of the best ways to get umami into a dish is to make a umami-laden stock like this: http://herbivoracious.com/2011/09/umami-packed-vegetarian-broth-recipe-also-vegan.html

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