Umami. Often referred to as the fifth taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty), the term is derived from two Japanese words “delicious taste.” Umami was invented in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at Tokyo Imperial University who later co-founded Ajinomoto, now a household brand of monosodium glutamate ….. also known as MSG (we’ll come back to this).
If you’ve ever eaten fermented soy products, cheese or shiitake mushrooms and were hit with a sense of “wow, this is amazing, give me more,” that my friends, is umami. You typically achieve this level of savory taste by combining together various ingredients, thereby turning a bland or mediocre dish into a flavor rave in your mouth. And it keeps you coming back (and salivating) for more.
Given the origin of the word, it only makes sense that the Japanese culture is full of rich, flavorful and savory (umami) meals, as well as other countries in Asia (think Thai, Vietnamese/Pho, even Indian food). All of these styles of cooking are rooted in complex tastes, textures and….FLAVOR.
Any serious chef knows how to create beautiful umami dishes, and if you are in to watching cooking shows on Netflix like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Ugly Delicious (featuring chef David Chang), Cooked (featuring Michael Pollan), then you most likely have heard these guys talk about, or prepare, dishes that are umami.
What Professor Ikeda found back in the 1900s was that the amino acid glutamate is largely responsible for umami. He actually patented glutamate salt, or monosodium glutamate (MSG) so he could produce it himself.
BUT, there is a distinct difference between naturally occurring glutamate in foods, and the mass industrialized and highly processed “MSG” salt we’ve come to know and slander today (for good reason).
Here are some of the natural glutamate containing, umami-rich foods that are used regularly in Asian-styled dishes:
This fake MSG crap? It’s not good for you at all. Found mostly in processed, canned and frozen foods to enrich their flavor, it can have some serious negative effects on your health and has been linked to chronic inflammation, headaches, fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, infertility, and much more. It’s so bad that we’ve started regulating it in some parts of the world that require companies to list it as an ingredient, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the U.S.
Now, some health conscious food manufactures (or those that don’t want to lose out on big profits) have started adding labels to their processed/packaged/pre-made foods specifically calling out “No MSG” or “MSG Free” given all of the negative attention MSG has had recently.
As Dr. Axe put it, “MSG is so controversial is because it contains an isolated and highly concentrated form of glutamic acid, it’s processed very differently in the body and can increase levels of glutamate in the blood very rapidly.”
Unfortunately, those that suffer with digestive problems and diseases like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD), Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), leaky gut syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and those with allergies to nightshade vegetables have trouble eating flavorful, umami dishes (Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese foods) because of the wide variety of spices used, like garlic and onion, peppers (chiles, paprika, cayenne, jalapeno, habanero, etc.), and some nightshade vegetables like eggplants, bell peppers, tomatoes, and so on.
Also, for those that avoid soy (which I typically do, and advise of others), it can cut out an entire cuisine. Unless you are consuming Natto, which is a fermented soybean dish used in Japanese cooking, most soybeans in the U.S. have been genetically modified and are mass processed for cheap (because Monsanto basically controls the soybean business).
It’s a real bummer because our bodies crave that fifth taste so often, and when we don’t get it, our meals become disappointing and we may start to feel unsatisfied with food. I love all of those Asian dishes (although have never been big on Chinese food), so not being able to enjoy a delicious Thai soup or curry has been hard.
That’s why I teamed up with my fiance, who is the “King of Umami” in our household of two, to create a gut-friendly Tom Kha Goong (or Thai coconut shrimp) soup recipe for you! He’s good with the flavors, trust me. This is NOT keto-friendly, but can be Paleo-friendly if you skip out on the rice noodles. And you totally could and you wouldn’t miss out on any of the flavor!
Start by adding all dry ingredients to a big pot on medium-low heat for about 5-8 minutes. So that’s your lemongrass, ginger, lime zest, mushrooms, carrots and coriander. This is called blooming, and it’s a great way to concentrate the flavors to create an umami dish.
Next, add your wet ingredients to the same pot (broth, fish sauce and coconut milk. Cook for 5-8 minutes, then add in your lime juice.
Turn up the heat to medium-high and bring the soup to a simmer, but not a boil.
Let simmer from anywhere to 20-40 minutes. The longer, the more flavor-infused and rich the soup will be. It was hard to put amounts for all of the ingredients because you have to go by taste. So keep tasting along the way and add things along the way.
In the meantime, if you want to add noodles, prepare those separately, per the package instructions, and let cool.
In the last 5-8 minutes, add your shrimp in. (These should be peeled and de-veined, but tails can be on or off).
Grab your bowl with the cooled noodles and spoon the soup on top of them to warm them up again. Add some additional fresh chopped cilantro, grated ginger and enjoy!
I like to add pictures to show step-by-step preparations, but if you’re like me when I am Googling for recipe ideas last minute, I like to scroll to the bottom and find exactly what I need and how to do it. I feel you! So, here’s the complete recipe, from start to finish, uninterrupted!
Total time: 60-70 minutes
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Servings: 2-4 (depending on portion size)
**A note: No affiliate links in this post. I am simply linking to and sharing my favorite food brands, and am not receiving royalties from any of my posts.