Call it the fifth taste, call it the X factor, call it that certain something — hell, even call it MSG. Call it anything, or call it nothing at all, just a satisfied sigh. With our favorite foods, when words fail, we’re likely in the glorious grip of umami, that unplaceable but unmistakable salty-savory-something that makes us take just one more bite, that can give even the most monastic foodies the late-night munchies. First identified in a Japanese study of amino acids in seaweed (aminos called glutamates, and specifically, monosodium glutamate, that infamous acronym, banished, say the menus, from all your local chop suey joints), umami is everywhere: the smoke in your smoked almonds, the funk in your ferment, the velvety chew of your chocolate. And, as delicious mashups like fishy hot sauce and fermented sriracha show, we’re folding it into even more foods — for good reason. All of which means, you’re in luck, because even if we can’t exactly define umami, we can box it up and land it on your doorstep. Salivating yet?
Korean Sriracha Steak Lettuce Wraps Recipe Here
Weak Knees Gochujang Sriracha // Bushwick Kitchen // Brooklyn, NY
You squeeze it on eggs, you mix it with ketchup, you drizzle it on a peanut butter sandwich (trust us) — you know it, you love it, but you’ve never had the Rooster quite like this. Sriracha’s salty sour tang is a match made in umami heaven (puzzle no more over the PB&S hack), which is why it goes so well with funky fermented gochujang, the Korean sauce, staple of every banchan spread. It plays the rich, fermented bass note to the zippy highs of the hot sauce’s vinegary spice. Spoon, splash, and squeeze as you like — or tie on an apron and whip up this steak: marinate a couple pounds in brown sugar, soy, and garlic, sear fast, and serve naked, with a bowl of hot sauce and plenty of cooling toppings like onions, cucumber, radish, and cilantro.
S & P Smoked Almonds // AgStandard Almonds // Los Angeles, CA
Old-time diehards might prefer theirs naked as a jaybird, calling them “eh-monds,” in the Central Valley vernacular (“the fall from the tree knocked the ‘el out of ‘em,” they’ll say), and turn up sunburnt noses at blends and spice-rubs, all that summer camp trail mix foolishness. Well we say, nuts to them. With a wisp of smoke, AgStandard made a good thing better: California-grown almonds, lightly kissed with smoldering kiln-dried wood (almond, natch) have just the right earthy bite to balance their creamy sun-kissed sweetness. Call ’em what you want — we call ’em the perfect snack.
Five Spice Turkey Jerky // Pure Provisions // San Francisco, CA
Road trips do strange things to our stomachs: spinning down that ribbon of highway, we sit motionless for hours, but feel famished by the time our exit sign appears. And while we should, we know, be fueling healthy (and getting enough sleep, and signaling lane changes with ample distance, and keeping both hands on the wheel at ten and two…) our floor mats are soon swamped with candy wrappers and soda cups and that rawhide totem of the lonesome road, gas station jerky. So the boys behind Pure Provisions invented this, the biodiesel to your greasy unleaded: lean, clean protein infused with a beguiling mix of spices like anise and clove. Try with a good Thai beer — frozen, in the “bai wuh” way, if you can find it. Just make sure to pull over first.
Shrimp & Super Green Rice Paper Rolls Recipe Here
Spicy Tangy Funky Dipping Sauce // One Culture Foods // New York, NY
You local Asian grocery’s condiment aisle (or aisles, typically) can be a daunting bestiary of unfamiliar labels — roosters and scorpions, sharks and ducks — that makes picking the right sauce a shot in the dark. One Culture makes it easy. Street-market-inspired, restaurant-quality goodness, right in your cupboard, with no filler and no secrets — it’s all there in the name. Spicy from fresh chilies, tangy with exotic tamarind and lime, and funky from fermented Southeast Asian fish sauce — first-pressed fist sauce, at that (damn right, it’s a thing). Wrap fresh shrimp-and-veggie spring rolls in lightly moistened rice paper, fill a bowl with sauce, and get dipping.
Black Rice Crackers // Laiki // Fremont, CA
So easy to munch, so hard to do so healthily: call it the cracker conundrum. In search of wholesome crisps (less salt, less processing), the folks at Laiki found either flavorless airy puffballs or tooth-cracking flakes of drywall. So, naturally, they made their own, with whole-grain black rice, good Thai palm oil, a pinch of salt, and nothing else — no frills, not even on their packaging. Perfect alone for mid-meal snacking, sturdy support for crudités and cheese, and — our favorite — a surprising snap when stuffed inside a sandwich or spring roll.
Matcha Green Tea Bar // Vosges Haut-Chocolat // Chicago, IL
A spoonful of sugar can help us take our medicine; give us a bar of chocolate this good, and we’ll endure the bitterest of pills, the chilliest stethoscope, the most outdated waiting-room magazines. But the hope is we won’t have to — because Trojan-horsed within this rich, 72% cacao bar (an antioxidant powerhouse itself) is detoxifying matcha powder and the nutritional superhero spirulina, with five times as much protein as tofu. Good for you, and tastes even better: a sweet reward for healthy indulgence.