Thursday, December 6, 2012

Umami and Anchovies

About twenty years ago I was just getting really interested in food.  I know it stemmed from being exposed to all sorts of food by my family and from our experience living in Luxembourg for a few years.  I was willing to try anything and had a growing interest in where food came from and what it meant.  I can remember coming across the word terroir.   It is a French word used to describe the unique character imparted to wines by the location and conditions the grapes experienced.  The belief is that the soil, air quality, sunlight, sun direction, humidity – everything a grape is subjected to gives it its qualities and thereby influences the wine created.  I though this idea was wonderful and highlighted why food and travel and truly seeking out special, unique and local experiences was so vital to love of food and life in general.  I applied the term to by general outlook.  When I traveled why would I eat in a chain restaurant and get something that tastes the same whether I am in Miami or Seattle?

A few years later all the foodie literature was littered with the term.  The food world was changing.  People started to think about where their food came from, whether or not it was seasonal, whether or not it was local or mass-marketed.  

Meanwhile I spent some time thinking about what sort of food really interested me.  What sort of food did I crave?  It seemed the basic four flavors – sweet, salty, sour and bitter – didn’t quite explain it for me.  I knew I leaned toward bitter flavors, but there was something lacking in that explanation.  Doing more reading I found my next new foodie term, umami.  I remember my first encounter with the word.  I was thrilled.  I finally had the word that summed up the flavors I craved.  Rich mushrooms, oily, dark fish, rich meats, particularly offal, dark poultry meat, truffles, even rich flourless chocolate cake all seemed to capture elements of umami.  And before long I started seeing this word pop up in foodie literature.  Now it’s tossed around as though most readers know it.  I know that isn’t the case; the average Western eater doesn’t know the term, but many foodies do. 
Just yesterday I was reading an article about achovies that used the term.  I love anchovies and they do capture the quality of umami.  I discovered this rich, salty fish in pizza calzone in a little restaurant in Luxembourg called the Bungalow and fell in love.  I use them in more dishes than my family would care to know, particularly in paste form.  They just add a lovely richness and depth to anything.  Furthermore, eating them is good for the environment and your health.  They are low on the food chain, so lack the build-up of toxins in larger, more popular fish.  They reproduce quickly and are found virtually all over the world; they’re sustainable.  They are loaded with omega-3s.  They taste great in many pasta sauces, are a key ingredient in a good Caesar salad, and are delicious on a cracker or pizza.  Try Spanish white anchovies, boquerones, with some tomato, olive oil and a slice of baguette.  Mix them in with tuna on a sandwich.  They are a great introduction to umami.

And don’t just assume the kids won’t like them.  Cured, canned anchovies – the salty ones – can be a real hit with kids.  My stepkids love them, and we have to keep a can on hands at all times for an impromptu snack with crackers. 

So eat 'em up...there's lots of  'em and you might surprise yourself.
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