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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Soy sauce
- vine-ripened Tomatoes
- Fish Sauce
- 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
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
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.
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
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
Try moroccain spices combinations for meats.
I have success with this combo
Sweet Paprika roasted red pepper Ground Cumin Sweet mild curry Very fine chopped onion (sweet or red) Very fine chopped cilantro Salt but more if used as a marinate Olive oil to trap the flavors in
The right ratio of cumin:red pepper:curry will not dominate any one of the spices when well balanced. I believe 1:2:2 parts respectively. The cilantro, onion, salt, and olive oil enhance the flavor but added once the spices are balanced. Not too soapy or bitter from cumin, not to sour from red pepper, not to curryish. They balance each other just right. A sweet mild curry is needed to be able to balance well. Fresh cilantro, olive oil, onion help the balance. Salt brings it further and finally high heat brings the umami into a carmelized saucey surface.
Heat in oven on iron pan on top shelf height at 500 for 5 min to simulate out door fire temperatures.
Fine minced cilantro and onion allow for even distribution around meats. 1 to 2 inch chuncks.
After 2 to 3 hrs marinated seer on high heat 500 degrees for a no more than 5 minutes. Cover to cool before serving.
This high heat for short time. Perhaps out door fire in iron pan moved about quickly to sear each side but not over cook center.
All these steps enhance umami experience on the pallet.
It's more than the spice but the food item, distribution size, method and process of cooking to combine and enhance the flavor.
Use this on tenderloin, sirliin. For chicken add fresh minced tomatoes.