The four basic tastes - salty, sweet, sour and bitter - are familiar to us, but so is umami, the Japanese name for "the fifth taste" that doesn't have a name in the West.

Often described as rich and meaty, umami ("oo-MOM-eh") is the full-flavored taste that helps make soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and sauteed mushrooms so appealing, both on their own and as flavor enhancers.

Although physiologists have long known the chemical compounds that provide its taste, only recently have they discovered the human tongue's receptors for umame. Particular amino acids and nucleotides, produced in foods when enzymes break down their proteins, stimulate these receptors, which then message our brain to register the deliciously savory taste of umami.

Fermented foods like soy sauce are particularly rich in umami. A dash of reduced-sodium soy sauce enhances all kinds of dishes, from stir-frys to mashed potatoes. If you must avoid sodum, use balsamic vinegar, especially in soups, tomato sauces and salad dressings.

Umami is particularly useful in meatless dishes, where it supplies the flavorful element that usually comes from meat or poultry. See for yourself when making vegetarian lentil soup by sauteing onions a deep brown. The caramelizing effect that occurs adds the umami taste that beef or chicken broth would otherwise provide.

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This mostly egg white omelet is ultimate proof of umami's power. As Shirley Corriher, author of Cookwise (Morrow, 1997 ) says, "Ain't nothin' blander than an egg white." But a host of umami-rich ingredients make this one profoundly delicious.

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Mushroom, Green Pepper and Onion Omelet

Makes two servings.

  • 3/4 cup good quality marinara sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Canola cooking oil spray
  • 1 small onion, cut in crescents
  • 6 medium white mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded, cut in thin strips
  • Salt, as desired
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese
  1. In a small saucepan, heat marinara sauce, vinegar and soy sauce, just until hot. Season with pepper to taste and set aside.
  2. Coat medium non-stick pan liberally with cooking oil spray. Set pan over medium-high heat. Saute onion until lightly colored, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, pepper and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Wipe out pan.
  3. Whisk egg whites and egg with cheese, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Coat pan with oil spray and heat over medium-high heat until hot. Add egg mixture, tilting pan to coat bottom evenly. Reduce heat to medium. Cook until eggs are well-set, about 4 minutes. Slip spatula gently around edges, then underneath to loosen omelet. Slide it onto a serving plate.
  4. Spoon filling to cover half of omelet and fold omelet, covering filling. With a spoon, drizzle sauce in a ribbon effect across omelet. Serve immediately.

Per Serving:
158 calories,
5 g. total fat (1 g. saturated fat),
17 g. carbohydrate,
12 g. protein,
3 g. dietary fiber,
545 mg. sodium

Diabetic Exchanges: 3 Vegetable, 1-1/2 Low-Fat Meat