Did you ever ask yourself why some Italian foods have become universally accepted? Nowadays pizza, tomato sauce, lasagne, cured olives, prosciutto can be found in the most unsuspected corners of the globe. There are many historic and cultural reasons for this phenomenon. It’s delicious food, you will think. Convenient, yes. Kid friendly, great. But what else?
Umami, a Japanese word meaning “savoriness”, is the 5th basic taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The umami taste in a certain food is defined by a high content of glutamate. Umami rich foods, such as soy and fish sauce, are flavor enhancers. That’s why glutamate is commonly used in Asian cuisine.
What does this have to do with Italian food? Flavor enhancers have been used for thousand of years. Garum, a pickled sauce made with fermented fish, fetched fantastic prices in ancient Rome. By the way, Worcestershire sauce is its direct descendant.
There’s lots of umami foods in Italian cuisine. Parmesan is the umami king, the humble anchovy is the princess, they rarely go together. And there’s more. Cured meats, stock, ripe tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, capers, mushrooms, olives are daily helpers to add depth and flavor to our food.
So now you know what makes the magic. A sprinkle of capers, a drop of balsamic, a handful of olives, few cubes of pancetta, a dusting of Parmesan. Use modest amounts though, you don’t want to eat only the condiment, you need the condiment to improve the rest.