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Most food improves with an umami heft

Are you a vegetarian and do you like Thai food?

If it is yes to both questions, then I wish you luck. It’s the same with the answer to another set of questions: are you a vegetarian? Do you enjoy a Bloody Mary?


The chances are that — probably without realising it — you may have been eating anchovies, small fish which are integral to cuisines from all over the world.


   The ‘secret’ ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, without which you cannot make a Bloody Mary is anchovy. And no Thai will cook without fish sauce (also usually made with anchovies) unless he or she has set out specifically to cook a vegetarian meal. It is the same with the food in Vietnam and Cambodia. And it is as true in much of the Western world where chefs add anchovies for flavour but do not necessarily feel obliged to inform their guests.


   I can’t eat anchovies myself. They are small fish, often smelly and not particularly delicious when served fresh (though you do get larger anchovies which are popular the world over) but you find them in kitchens nearly everywhere in some form or the other. You will find preserved anchovies in bottles and in cans. (Think of them as sardine substitutes.) And they turn up in a range of kitchen products from pastes to sauces.


   But here’s the irony. While I would never eat a fresh or preserved anchovy, I use them all the time when I cook. The great thing about an anchovy is that if you add it to the pan just as you start cooking say, a pasta sauce, the fish will melt, its fishy taste will be submerged and yet the sauce will be improved beyond recognition.


   How do anchovies manage this? I have searched for an explanation but all that people will tell you is that when they dissolve, they lose their fishiness and simply add a jolt of umami to the food. This is true enough but it doesn’t explain the phenomenon.


   Anchovies have been doing all this for thousands of years, long before we knew what an umami flavour was. The ancient Romans flavoured their food with garum (and various garum derivatives and cousins). Nobody alive today has ever tasted ancient Roman garum but we do know that it was made by fermenting anchovies (and other fish too) and then collecting the juices that were released by this process.


   It now seems likely that the Romans got the technique from the Greeks (which means it probably predated the birth of Christ) and archaeological evidence suggests that they made garum in other parts of Europe too including Portugal and perhaps Spain.


   At some stage garum ceased to be part of Italian cuisine but the idea of making an anchovy-flavoured sauce survives in Southern Italy where it is called Colatura, a few drops of which will make any pasta jump to life.


   And that is also where the idea of ketchup originally came from. Today we use ketchup as a generic name for tomato ketchup. But the first ketchups were not made with tomatoes. As far as we can tell, the British imported ketchup (or ‘ketsaap’ as it was then called) from Holland in the 17th or 18th Century. This ketchup was made by fermenting fish (probably anchovies) and collecting the juices. But by the time the Brits started making it on their own, they found the whole business of making a fermented fish sauce too complicated. So they used preserved mushrooms. Eventually the mushrooms were replaced by tomatoes but early ketchup recipes have both tomatoes and fish extract.


   Nobody knew the term then but essentially ketchup became a way of adding umami to food. Fermented fish has umami, so do mushrooms and so, of course, do tomatoes. So the substitutions all made sense.


"Italian and French chefs like to use anchovies or anchovy paste to add an umami-flavour to their dishes and even to the basic sauces that they will use to cook everything."

   Where did the Dutch get their fish ketchup from? It could have been a legacy of the Greeks or the Romans but a more likely explanation is that they got it from Asia to which Dutch traders often sailed (and then, perhaps inevitably, colonised) where fish sauces were integral to the diet.


   They developed fish sauce in Asia quite independent of the Romans and the Greeks though the basic idea was the same: extract umami flavour by fermenting anchovies.


   It now forms the basis of Thai cuisine where fish sauce (nam pla) goes into every dish. At many restaurants you will find extra nam pla on the table to use as a seasoning (you won't usually find salt though you may find sugar and chilli). Sometimes the fish sauce is served at the table with chopped chillis added (nam pla prik).


   If you make Thai food at home and say it is vegetarian because you are not adding any nam pla, you are fooling yourself. First of all, it won’t taste particularly Thai till you get a layer of Nam Pla flavour. And secondly, even if you don’t add extra nam pla, the chances are that the pastes and sauces or cubes you are using will all contain Nam Pla.


   There are people who make vegetarian nam pla substitutes but with some exceptions (Varun Tuli’s Yum Yum Cha chain makes its own vegan Nam Pla), they are inadequate substitutes for the real thing. Certainly, at nearly every restaurant in Thailand even if you order vegetarian dishes, there will be some Nam Pla in the food.


   Europe is only slightly better. Italian and French chefs like to use anchovies or anchovy paste to add an umami-flavour to their dishes and even to the basic sauces that they will use to cook everything. They will never tell you this of course. And what you don’t know can’t hurt you — or so the theory goes.


   So, if everybody uses some form of anchovy flavouring, why don’t we do the same in India?!


   Well, we do use fish flavours. Dried fish turn up in recipes all along the coast. The fishy smell that sometimes wafts through Mumbai is from people sun-drying fish (often bombil or Bombay Duck) to preserve it for adding to gravies later.


   But yes, traditional Indian cuisine is short on umami flavours. That’s why we have now introduced umami in restaurant food.


   All our food trends over the last six decades have been umami based: tomato in Butter Chicken, cheese in pizza, soya sauce in Indian-Chinese etc.


  But traditional Indian food could do with an umami boost. Take the case of Worcestershire sauce. An old Raj hand went back to England two hundred years ago with the recipe for a chutney he had liked during his years in India. He gave it to the firm Lea and Perrin to make.


   Lea and Perrin made a barrel-full to the old buffer’s recipe only to find that he never turned up to collect it. Months (in some versions of the story it was years) later, they tried the chutney which lay fermenting and forgotten in a barrel in the storeroom. They thought it was delicious. It had distinct Indian flavours: imli, mirchi, gud, garlic etc. and probably (though Lea and Perrin have never confirmed this) heeng.


   But it lacked something. They increased the vinegar content. But the perfect taste eluded them till one day, they added anchovies. And a great sauce was born. Two centuries later it still sells and not just to bartenders who use it for Bloody Maries.


   Would many Indian dishes improve with umami? Yes, of course, they would. That’s why Punjabis now put tomatoes in their black dal and Gujaratis treat cheese like their own creation.


   Most food improves with an umami heft. I use anchovy paste and even Thai fish sauce liberally in all my cooking.


   If you are a vegetarian then, I concede, this is a problem. The only outstanding vegan product I have found is Rene Redzepi’s Smoked Mushroom Garum. You can buy it on the net though the last time I checked on the Noma site it was out of stock.


   I have two bottles and I am hoarding them. But not to worry: it’s such a great product that I am sure that ripoffs will soon flood the market


   Why should non vegetarians have all the fun?




  • Alden 03 May 2023

    However, in Thailand, you can also enjoy dishes such as vegetables, fruits, or sweets without having to touch the meat and fish. I am a vegetarian and I also love Thai food. Sometimes, having new experiences is just as exciting as participating in an eggy car.

Posted On: 02 May 2023 05:43 PM
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