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Sunday Column: A question of umami

photo 5If you’ve read all you care to about Swedish food on this blog, please move on. But I thought I would share this column, which appeared in yesterday’s print edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I took my travelogue from a couple of weeks ago and used it as a starting point for a geeky meditation on the presence — and absense — of umami in food. I’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on the subject.

Swedish food adventure

By the third day in our hotel room I felt like I could use the shower without getting scalded, or frozen, or shooting water out of the weird little side nozzle past my head and into the toilet. The bank of gleaming steel controls on this shower were both beautiful to behold and wholly unmarked. This was, I was beginning to understand, another example of Swedish design.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to Stockholm for vacation and spent a lot of time admiring the way everyday objects were designed. We also admired the food: Amazing fish everywhere. Bold flavors. A cult of freshness. It was all we could ask for.

We feasted day and night, peeved with ourselves for the constant urge to indulge but unable to stop. Brioche toasts smeared with sour cream, chopped onion and heaping spoonfuls of saline bleak roe. Crisp breads slathered with butter and piled with gravlax. Potato pancakes the size of hubcaps, roulades of spongecake with lingonberry mousse and marzipan, creamed herring, sharp pickled turnips, cardamom-glazed sweet rolls, baked sheep cheese with honey and spice bread, creamy white asparagus soup.

Yet there was also something about the flavors in Scandinavian food that struck me as — what is the word? Hollow?

No, not hollow. That sounds judgmental, as if I didn’t like the food when in fact I loved it.

But it felt like something was lacking in these flavors that I couldn’t put my finger on. Not lacking so much as not there.

What could it be? The food here practically shouted from the plates. I’ll never forget the Zing! Pow! comic-book-size flavors of the smorgasbord at the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art). My plate piled high with Matjes herring, pickled artichokes, sugar-cured salmon and roasted beets, I remarked that this lunch was turning into a dance of bright primary tastes. Sweet, tart, salty: my tastebuds tingled. And then the numerous creamy sauces and dressings mellowed it all out, made my tongue skip over that void.

The food did remind me in a way of all the lovely birch veneer trays, silverware, plastic spouts and, yes, shower fixtures that we had encountered. It was clean and stark. You could admire it for sensible lack of ornamentation, for the beauty of its surface, for the clean edges of flavor cutting corners in your mouth like adept ice dancers taking corners.

On our last night in Stockholm we went out for an expensive and elaborate dinner at a restaurant called Fredsgaten 12, where a French chef had earned a Michelin star for his reinterpretations of Scandinavian fare. The dining room was gorgeous and dark, with the most perfect light diffusing from rows of yellow trumpet-shaped light fixtures made of silicon rubber. The wines were spectacular, and the food began arriving in a multitude of small courses.

At one point our waitress brought out our fish course — a pike perch with oyster confit in a foamy sauce. She proceeded to grate a bit of russet bottarga over the surface. “What is bottarga?” my wife asked.

“It’s dried, pressed mullet roe from Italy, ” I explained. “It’s very salty but also has a lot of umami.”

That’s when the answer to my question struck me: Most of the Swedish food we were eating didn’t have a lot of umami.

Food writers love to throw around this Japanese word that seems at first glace the essence of foodie esoterica. Yet it is important. Umami is the fifth primary taste — the hard-to-isolate handmaiden to sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is called “savory, ” “brothy, ” “meaty” and “ripe.” Any food high in natural glutamates — such as Japanese miso soup, a juicy garden tomato, a slice of salami, a sprinkle of MSG — has it. It makes food taste round and encompassing in your mouth, thrumming with softness and warmth.

Unlike most Swedish food.

Pickles in Sweden tasted of vinegar, salt and sugar but not umami-laden fermentation. We had eaten little sharp, aged cheese but lots of sour cream. We barely considered meat. Few mushrooms showed up on plates. The first spring asparagus was everywhere but there were no glutamate-rich tomatoes. No soy sauce or fish sauce or even ketchup was presented to season food. But there was always salt, as well as fresh lemons.

Lovely, pure flavors and sharp juxtapositions brighten Swedish food. That soft, dark, messy oomph of umami would get in the way.

I wish I could experience more Swedish fare here in Atlanta — but the only restaurant I’ve been able to find is the Ikea cafeteria. Some national cuisines have an embarrassment of umami: think Japanese or Italian. These tend to be popular.

Swedish? Not so much. That might make it a little harder for outsiders to love. But that doesn’t mean it’s not lovable. As much as I enjoyed that fancy, umami-rich Swedish/Continental meal served in the moody darkness of F12, I keep thinking about that smorgasbord, those bright flavors like a taste of midnight sun.

One comment Add your comment

Andy Floyd

May 17th, 2010
8:22 pm

It is no surprise why the world is so in love with Italian food. Or grilled meats. BTW, have you heard of Komumi? The glutamates from the amino acid chain released from the Maillard reaction in searing meats.
If you want Swedish restaurants in the US you’ll have to go to Minnesota.