In the last couple of years umami has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue and trending in the culinary stratosphere. There is even an Umami Burger restaurant chain in America. So just what is Umami?
Umami is a Japanese word that loosely translates into English as “a pleasant savory taste.” To that I would add “a subtle taste that stimulates the taste receptors and lingers as a pleasant after note on the palate.”A rather allusive concept not unlike trying to describe the concept of “saving face” in Asia. Who other than the Japanese would be compelled to identify and explain the source and subtle allure of a specific taste that has been rooted in their traditional foods for centuries.
In 1908 Kikune Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University, determined while eating a bowl of dashi broth (see here) that the chemical glutamate was the basis for the taste of the broth which he named umami. It was the glutamate extracted from the kombu seaweed in the broth that conveyed its characteristic flavor. That discovery eventually lead to the commercial manufacturing of monosodiom glutamate (MSG). In 1985 Umami was recognized as the scientific term to describe the tastes of glutamate in foods. Prof. Ikeda intimated that it was likely humans developed a taste for glutamate as it signaled the presence of protein in food sources long ago.
In the west we have traditionally categorized tastes in food as sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The Japanese umami taste is the fifth taste. Naturally occurring glutamate is found in smoked fish and meat products, aged meats and cheeses, fish sauce, soy sauce, and shrimp pastes, as well as vegetables like vine ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, celery, and root vegetables. Also included are legumes and especially mushrooms.
My initial introduction to Japanese food goes back to the macrobiotics of the ’60’s. Later while living in NY I took Japanese cooking classes. While living in Los Angeles Japan Town was my weekend haunt. I took classes, scoured the Japanese cooking shops, and ate my way through every aspect of Japanese cooking, or so I thought at the time. Then while living in Hawaii, where there is a large Japanese population, Japanese food became a part of everyday life. Yet while traveling in Japan I tasted some of the most unusual and sometimes undefinable foods I have ever encountered. It was an unexpected epiphany that threw the doors wide open, not only about Japanese food, but what inventive cookery can be if we are willing to venture beyond our own comfort zones.
That said, the whole umami burger idea has been tossing around in my head for months. I wanted to translate the umami taste into a healthy non meat burger that reflects the flavors and nutritional content found in traditional Japanese cooking. I have to say, most veggie burgers I have eaten over the years have been mostly resoundingly mealy mushy affairs not to be repeated. A challenge was at hand!
After multiple trials with a few errors, here is the Umaimi vegetarian Burger recipe I came up with. It has certainly got to be one of the healthiest burgers you will ever eat thanks to the wisdom and ingenuity of Japanese cookery. The resulting umami burger is crisp on the outside, moist and succulent inside, and with accompanying garnishes this is an Umami alternative burger well worth trying out.
The recipe is a little time consuming as many components have to be precooked before embarking on making the burger patties themselves. Add to that a little multitasking in assembling the burgers, but well worth the effort!
Umami Burger (Vegetarian) makes 10 burgers
Burger mixture: See notes for ingredients and additional recipes below.
- ¼ cup light olive oil+ more for frying
- 1 ½ cups finely diced onions
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- ½ cups chopped shiitake mushrooms
- ¼ cup sake
- 1 cup diced roasted beets
- 1 cup flame roasted Japanese eggplant, chopped
- ¾ cup chopped cooked burdock root
- 1 ¾ cups cooked aduki beans
- 2 cups cooked dark brown rice (or wild rice)
- 1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
- 1 large organic egg, whisked
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- fish sauce for brushing
Rolls and condiments:
- 10 wholegrain burger buns
- light olive oil for brushing
- 1 garlic clove, for rubbing
- 10 slices large vine ripe tomatoes
- pickled daikon radish and carrots
- simmered hijiki seaweed (optional, see note below)
- toasted sesame seeds
- wasabi ginger mayonnaise
Place the oil in a saute pan set over medium heat. When the oil slides easily in the pan add the onions and a pinch of salt and saute for several minutes until soft. Add the garlic and shiitake mushrooms and continue to saute until the mushrooms give up their moisture. Add the sake and stir continuously until the sake is absorbed and the pan is nearly dry. Set aside to cool.
Set out a large mixing bowl.
Place the roasted beets in a food processor and briefly pulse several times just until the mixture looks like a very course meal. Transfer the mixture to the mixing bowl.
Without cleaning the processor work bowl add the roasted eggplant and pulse once or twice just until broken down. Transfer to the mixing bowl.
Follow the same procedure for the burdock root, aduki beans, and cooked brown rice, transferring each batch to the mixing bowl. Stir to combine the ingredients evenly. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
Scatter the panko bread crumbs over the mixture and pour the whisked egg over all. Using a large spoon mix all the ingredients together until very well combined.
Transfer the mixture to a deep tray and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Using a kitchen scale weigh out 4 ¼ oz portions and form them into a compressed ball and then flatten the portion to about a ¾ inch patty. The texture of the mixture will be more moist than a beef burger patty, but will firm up once cooked. Transfer the patty to a wax paper lined tray. Continue making the remaining patties, seal the tray with cling film and refrigerate until you are ready to cook the burgers.
Once chilled, if you are not intending to use all 10 patties, simply wrap the remaining patties in cling film, place them on a tray, and put them in the freezer. Once they are completely frozen they can be bagged and returned to the freezer for later use.
Cooking the burgers: The burgers will be fried until crisp on both sides and then finished in the oven.
Preheat the oven to 425f/220c Have a large baking tray on hand.
While the oven is preheating lightly brush the inside surfaces of the burger buns with olive oil. Place them on a baking tray and pop them into the preheating oven. When nicely colored, about 10 minutes, remove them from the oven and rub the oiled sides of each bun with a garlic clove and set aside.
Remove the patties from the fridge and lightly brush the tops with fish sauce and then grind fresh black pepper very generously over each.
Place a large non stick skillet on the stove top set over medium heat. Add some olive oil to glaze the pan nicely and when hot place the patties peppered side down in the skillet without overcrowding. Let them cook for about two minutes. Meanwhile brush the tops of the patties in the skillet with fish sauce and pepper as before. Do not be tempted to compress the patties with the spatula as you might do when cooking beef burgers. Carefully turn the patties and cook another 2 minutes. The patties should be nicely browning and they will have firmed up on the outside. If they need a little more browning flip them and cook another minute or so.
Promptly transfer the patties to a large baking tray and place them in the oven. Roast for 10 to 12 minutes until the patties are firm on the outside with some give if lightly pressed on the top. Promptly remove from the oven and set aside to rest for a couple of minutes before assembling the burgers for serving.
If you are frying a second batch add more oil to the skillet before proceeding.
While the patties are roasting, wipe out the skillet with a paper towel and reheat the skillet over medium heat and add some olive oil to the skillet. Blot the tomato slices with a paper towel and put them in the skillet. Salt them lightly and fry until they are just beginning to color, 1 ½ minutes. Turn them and fry another minute or so. Remove them from the oven and place each slice on the bottom half of each burger bun and set aside.
Place a burger on top of each tomato slice sitting on top of the bottom half of the burger bun. Add a generous mound of the well drained and blotted pickled daikon carrot garnish on top of the burger. Top that with the prepared hijiki (optional, see note below). Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over the hijiki. Slather the lid of the bun with a generous amount of the ginger wasabi mayonnaise and place atop the burger. Voila!
Notes: As mentioned the following components for the Umami burger are prepared ahead.
Roasted Beets: (click here)
Flame Roasted Eggplant: (click here)
Aduki Beans: (click here)
Burdock Root: Gobo/Burdock is a root vegetable that tastes somewhat like Jerusalem artichoke. The root has a dark outer bark with a crunchy fibrous flesh. Loaded with vitamins and minerals and very popular in Japan cooked or pickled.
Do not peel off the bark as it is full of nutrients. Simply shave thin strips off the root and place in acidulated water to avoid discoloration.
To cook place in a sauce pan, cover with water, add a pinch of salt and gently boil until tender. Cooking times can vary with the maturity of the root, but somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes.
Dark brown rice: Rinse the rice well and place in a rice steamer or sauce pan. Cover with water to about a finger joints length above of surface of the rice. Cook until the water is absorbed. Place a lid on the sauce pan if using and set aside to steam for 15 minutes. Some dark brown rices may require a second cooking. The rice should be cooked through but still have a slight bite for this recipe.
Hijiki: Hijiki is a dark rich tasting seaweed, valued for its essential mineral content, that has been a staple in the Japanese diet for centuries. It is harvested along rocky coastlines, soaked, and sun dried.
Recently, WHO studies have put hijiki’s safety for consumption into question as it contains higher traces of inorganic arsenic than found in other seaweeds and fish. Sadly inorganic arsenic is found in our oceans, rivers, and ground waters world wide due to run off from chemical fertilizers and industrial waste. This is an issue that is as important to address as air pollution and global warming!
That said, seek out out certified organic hijiki available at health food stores or online. Otherwise simply omit for this recipe.
- 2/3 cup dried hijiki
- ¼ cup dashi (or water)
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 1 tablespoon Tamari soy sauce (or regular soy sauce)
- sea salt
- toasted sesame seeds
Place the dried hijiki in a bowl of water and soak for 20 minutes. Rinse and drain and place in a small sauce pan. Add the dashi (or water), sugar, sake, and soy sauce. Stir and bring to a simmer and cook until the liquid has nearly evaporated. Add additional salt as needed and set aside to cool to room temperature. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds when serving.
Pickled Daikon with Carrots and Red Onions.: Daikon is a large white Japanese radish that is usually shredded for salads and garnishes, pickled, or braised in dashi with miso for a side dish.
- ½ daikon radish, peeled
- 1 large carrot, peeled
- ½ cup thinly sliced red onion
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
- ¾ cup Japanese rice vinegar
- water to cover
Using a Japanese mandoline (inexpensive and well worth buying if you don’t have one) slice the daikon and carrot into thin threads and place them in a non reactive bowl. Add the sliced onions and toss everything together. Sprinkle with the salt, sugar, and rice vinegar and toss to combine. Compress the mixture and add just enough water to cover. Using your hands swirl the mixture to evenly distribute the vinegar into the water and set aside for at least 1 hour or cover and refrigerate for later use.
When ready to serve drain the portion you will be needing and place on a kitchen towel to remove excess moisture. Fluff the mixture just before using as a garnish or in a salad.
Wasabi Ginger Mayonnaise: Contrary to what you might think the Japanese have wholeheartedly embraced mayonnaise. Kewpie mayonnaise, made with rice vinegar, has been Japan’s favorite mayonnaise since 1925. Available worldwide.
- 1 cup Kewpie mayonnaise (or other)
- 2 tablespoons pickled ginger, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon prepared wasabi paste (or more to taste)
Whisk the ingredients together in a small bowl and refrigerate.