You may have heard of something being described as having the "fifth taste" known as umami. You may even have tasted it before knowing there was a name for it. And, as I've just discovered, an online information center dedicated to it. Words often associated with this flavor are deep, savory, complex, meaty and pungent, and although I may not be able to string the perfect sentence to describe it, my Southeast Asian tongue knows it well and wants it. I know of two ingredients that can help me achieve the umami in my cooking: miso paste and dried shiitake mushrooms. They join the list of key ingredients in my Asian Kitchen Project series that let me cook with a twist of Asian flavor no matter where I am in the world.
This easy vegetarian stew recipe is based on a Malaysian Nyonya dish called pongteh, which has fermented soybean sauce (taucheo) and palm sugar (gula melaka) as the foundation of its umami quality. I use white miso paste (shiro miso), the Japanese version of fermented soybeans, and coconut sugar because they are more widely available here. And also because miso paste is a handy umami agent that is adaptable to most cooking applications, from soups and stir-fries to glazes and sauces. Feel free to use yellow miso (shinshu miso) if you want a deeper umami flavor, but I would personally be careful about using the dark and mysterious red miso (aka miso), which is a whole lot saltier.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are an obvious choice in my pantry essentials. Not only do they have a higher concentration of flavor compared to the fresh kind, they also have a much longer shelf life, and can be conveniently reconstituted to join the umami party. They can usually be found at Asian grocery stores and I use them often in stock, quick soups, stews and stir-fries. Together, miso and shiitake form quite a powerful team in defining the flavor profile of this simple stew, which is best enjoyed with plain rice.
Do you have a favorite umami ingredient? Tell me in the comment section below!
In case you missed them, here are the other key ingredients in my Asian Kitchen Project series: dried jujubes, Chinese Five Spice, soy sauce and jasmine rice.
Shiitake Mushroom and Potato Miso Stew
This is a vegetarian version of the much-loved Malaysian Nyonya dish called pongteh. It is a simple recipe that relies on a few basic ingredients to achieve the umami flavor, and the stewing process really brings the contributors together. I like using gold and red potatoes in this recipe because they hold their shape better. Serves 3 to 4. Enjoy with warm jasmine rice.
1 tablespoon white miso paste (shiro miso)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons palm/coconut sugar
1 tablespoon oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
8 to 10 (about 700g) medium potatoes, cubed
3 (about 150g) medium carrots, cubed
10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water for at least 2 hours and halved
2 cups water
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
Begin by mixing miso paste, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and sugar in a bowl with some water. Then set the mixture aside.
In a deep pot, heat oil and saute garlic and shallot until they are soft and fragrant. Add potatoes, carrots and mushrooms, followed by the sauce mixture and water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender.
The liquid will cook down and the starch from the potatoes will thicken the sauce. Feel free to add a little water if the mixture gets too dry. Garnish with cilantro and serve warm with jasmine rice.