This is just my opinion, not a scientific research project, but I think that the flavor that people love in meat, and miss most when becoming vegetarian, is umami. The word "Umami" has a Japanese origin. The Chinese word is "xian wei” (discussed here
). Some resources use "meaty" or "savory" as synonyms.
Why did our taste buds evolve to detect umami? Discussed here
, "Just as sweet foods signal that there are sugars in foods, salty tastes indicate the presence of minerals, and sour and bitter tastes keep us away from foods that could potentially poison us, research suggests that umami-rich foods alert us to the presence of proteins." Since we need protein to survive, it makes sense that we would enjoy foods that have a "protein" flavor. This is probably pure speculation, but worth thinking about. I'm also not sure that I agree about the "sour" part identifying poisons, since a lot of people love sour tastes. Fruits that are sour can be rich in vitamin C, which is also an important nutrient.
Wikipedia discussed umami, here
. The substances that create this flavor are as complex as the taste itself, but in purest form glutamic acid (monosodium glutamate or MSG) comes closest. Other nutrients, such as guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP), also natural parts of foods, greatly enhance umami taste. The wikipedia article also states that "In monkey studies, most umami signals from taste buds excite neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, showing spatially-specific characteristics". I don't know what that means, except that it shows that the sensual experience of food has a measurable impact in the brain. Subjectively, we like that experience.
The big challenge for me has been finding foods that are rich in umami taste. Once aware that there IS such a taste, and that it is what is missed, then I started looking for it.
are a great source of umami, and saute or stir fry of mushrooms seems to bring it out. When I was a boy, we used tol hunt morels in the fields and woods, and I think that they are an especially rich source of the umami taste.
mentions "tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, soy beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, and carrots. " as containing umami. Since ketsup is concentrated tomato (among other ingredients), maybe this is the source of the fake ketsup ads on Prairie Home Companion?
I don't find it mentioned much, but I suspect that sesame oil is a rich source of umami. It seems to give many foods a sensuality that only "umami" has been used to describe.
is another list of umami-rich foods. No wonder I can't seem to give up parmesan cheese. Looks like I'll have to find some vegemite or marmite. This article adds that fermentation unbinds the amino acids in food, releasing umami flavor.
Lentils and other legumes are also said to have umami (here
). I'm looking for more ways to use lentils, lately. My first attempt at a home made lentil chili was "OK" but not "knock-your-socks-off wonderful".
I'm certainly interested in enhancing this flavor in my meals. I suspect that it increases satiety, leading to feeling more satisfied with less food (pure conjecture on my part, also why I like lots of garlic and hot spices). Garbonzos maybe? I could try making hummus with soy sauce and sesame oil. Also, I think that being aware of that "certain something" that we evolved taste buds to savor, will help us have a more joyful and sensuous vegetarian lifestyle.
I know that there have been controversies regarding MSG. I don't know where I stand on that, but maybe it's time to buy some and add it to my lentil loaf.