The variety of international food cultures provides what seems like an almost endless variety of tasty meals. What brings this variety together is a universal want for flavoursome ingredients. A more detailed look at culinary specialities from different cultural areas reveals that traditionally used seasonings have an additional similarity – the existence of glutamic acid, which is responsible for that hearty ‘umami’ flavour.
In Asian countries for instance, aromatic foodstuffs such as seaweed and Shiitake mushrooms are used in many different ways. Then there are the various sauces and pastes made from soya, fish, oysters and crabs, which are often produced using fermentation processes. Their fundamental components all inherently contain glutamic acid and therefore contribute to the aromatic flavours of Asian speciality dishes. In West Africa the traditional paste soumbala is popular – the foundations of this condiment, which lends an intense piquancy to meat, fish and vegetable dishes, are the protein-rich, fermented seeds of the Néré tree. In western cuisine the characteristic ‘umami’ flavour is found in meat, various stocks and in many matured cheeses.
One other example of a condiment which inherently contains glutamic acid is yeast extract. It is extracted from natural yeast and has for many decades been used as a condiment. Yeast extract is manufactured without the addition of chemicals, using enzymes which split the proteins in yeast into the elements which provide flavours. These are then separated from the insoluble residues and dried. This process gives rise to yeast extract – a blend of a variety of amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. In comparison to many other natural foodstuffs, the glutamic acid content in yeast extract is relatively low.