vegan mushroom dish

The Plant-based Umami Heaven

It’s not the meat most people crave they might well be craving umami. People who start eating vegan but then fall off the green wagon sometimes blame their cravings for protein, aged cheeses, or meat. In general, when people make the shift to a plant-based diet people lack knowledge about how to bring umami into their new lifestyle.

Umami is a Japanese word for delicious. The good news is there are many plant-based umami foods, some of which taste very similar to what people are used to eating before shifting to a plant-based lifestyle. First of all, adding spices to your plant-based foods can make a plant-based meal much more fun & filling. Remember back when you ate a lot of meat, one of the first things you did when you wanted to cook it was to grease it in bbq sauce, salt/pepper, sugar, and/or in other tasty spices. You can do the same thing to all plants.

To deliver high quality & tasty dishes, we first need to understand what Umami is. This word is properly used more than people actually know what it is. Umami is a high level of glutmate in food products and that is what our taste receptors recognise as a delicious taste. Glutamate is also known as glutamic acid. Some foods have a high level naturally, but it can also come from fermentation of food. Glutamic acid is an α-amino acid that is used by almost all living beings in the biosynthesis of proteins.

a mouth watery of a creamy soup
Miso Soup / Photo by Ponyo Sakana on

Nearly every region has a fermented product, which makes this process understandable for most people. All fermented food delivers a unique amount of umami. Fermentation is an important player in the plant-based kitchen. A long time ago farmers from Korea learned that salt could be used to preserve their harvests over the cold winter months, this is what started the kimchi hype. Kimchi is fermented cabbage, mostly made from napa cabbage. There are a million recipes online.

Miso is a fermented paste that adds a salty umami flavor to many Japanese dishes. Most Miso paste’s a cultured mixture of soybeans, a type of grain, salt, and koji (a mold). Depending on the variety, miso can be smooth or chunky and is fermented anywhere from a few weeks to several years. Koji grows on partially or fully cooked grains, such as rice and barley. You can use miso in dressing, soups, sauces, or in a marinade.

Soy Sauce & Tamari is a Japanese sauce made from fermented soybeans. You can use this instead of regular salt. You can also add these in soups, stews, marinades, stir-fries & as a dip.

The umami flavor of nutritional yeast is a great alternative to cheeses like Parmesan. Using this in recipes makes your food hits a balanced taste. It supports many regular spices giving in the typical kitchen. Nutritional yeast is an easy and quick way to solve the lack of umami in sauces or even in a dressing.

fresh organic onions and garlic in square pot
Onion & Garlic / Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

All mushrooms are a rich source of umami and the darker the mushroom the more umami it contains. You can bake or fry them to bring out more umami. Dried mushrooms tend to have more umami than fresh ones.

Have you ever thought about why there is onion in so many recipes? This is because the onion has high glutamic acid, and therefore brings your dish umami.

Of the many plant foods that provide umami in the western tradition is the well known tomato. Tomatoes contain high levels of the umami provider glutamic acid, and as the fruit ripens these levels increase. Fried, baked & sun-dried tomatoes together with salt will give your dish what it needs.

Written by Casper Bilton
Chef & Vegan Lifestyle Coach
Former Pro. Athlete

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