Searching For Balance: Exploring Umami In Cuisines (Part 1)

My mother had a remarkable ability to balance flavors and textures in even the daily multi-course Indian meal. This sounds very simple to achieve, but when done correctly, aromatics abound and color saturates the meal, while flavors pop on your tongue. In the Indian Ayurvedic healing practices, a healthy body requires a balance of sour, bitterness, salt, astringent, sweet, and pungent tastes. When I learned of yet another flavor, umami, I wondered how this elusive taste could transform what A. and N. call a “meh” meal to one loaded with a multi-sensory experience.

Umami, in Japanese, loosely translates as delicious food, and is the fifth taste after salty, sour, sweet, and bitter. The “meaty or hearty” sensation felt on the tongue is the taste of glutamates or salts of glutamic acid, made famous by MSG, the now much maligned food additive. Glutamate salts exist naturally in seaweed, some vegetables, seafood, and meat. In Far Eastern cooking, they are used commonly as fermented fish sauce and soy sauce.

I experimented with fish sauce as I reworked a Thai recipe for my favorite papaya salad with ingredients that were available at home. When I attended a Thai cooking class recently, our instructor would remind us to “check for balance,” just before we plated our creations. By pounding individual flavors of chilies, salt, sugar, and tangy lime before adding fish sauce, it became easy to savor the fifth element both in conjunction and separate from the others. The process also led me to want to learn how other cuisines, especially those not served in groupings, manage the delicate balance.

Green Apple And Cucumber Salad

(Adapted from a Thai-style Green Papaya Salad)

Green Apple – 1, cored and finely shredded

Cucumber – 1 medium, peeled, deseeded and shredded

Green beans – 5, sliced thinly in 1-inch pieces

Serrano chilies – 2-3, deseeded and sliced

Garlic –3 cloves, peeled and sliced

Tomato – 1, quartered

Salt – ¼- ½ tsp

Fish sauce – 1 tbsp

Sugar (white, brown or palm) – 1 tbsp

Lime – 1-2 tbsp, juice

  • In a mortar and pestle, crush the chilies and garlic.
  • Add the sugar and pound until incorporated.
  • Add the beans and crush lightly. (If the following ingredients don’t fit into the mortar, move them into a larger bowl.)
  • Add the shredded apple and cucumber into the bowl. Gently crush them with the pestle.
  • Add the limejuice, salt, fish sauce, and tomatoes. Toss gently. Taste just once (or else your tongue gets overwhelmed) to adjust and balance the flavors.
  • Serve immediately.


Summer Soups: Gazpacho and Cucumber Yogurt Soup

When I know that A. and N. have a busy week ahead, I share with them easy recipes that require little preparation. While checking out the farmer’s market this week, I noticed piles of long, earthy-green cucumbers, and varying shades of red, misshapen heirloom tomatoes – the intensity of colors would add up to flavorful summer soups.

Apart from Sangria, gazpacho, the cold tomato soup, was my favorite of the dishes that I encountered in Spain. I’ve eaten gazpacho before (and not much cared for it), as it had either mushy vegetables or a tart flavor that was all the more startling in a cold soup. However, in Spain, the gazpacho that I had was a smooth soup with hints of green peppers and cucumber and subtle garlic and onion flavor. Bread, traditionally added to bulk up the soup, was present as croutons, served on top for a much lighter garnish. More importantly, the soup had a perfectly balanced finish; the acidic flavors were absent from the deliciously-sweet tomatoes.

Cucumber, the other summer vegetable that is now in abundance, blends well with yogurt (see last week’s blog: Yogurt: Food for Longevity). In Lebanon and Bulgaria the two are combined to make a refreshing soup. Cucumber yogurt soup, like gazpacho, requires no cooking. Both soups should be made ahead as they need to be served chilled; this makes them both great options for a no-fuss summer meal.

Cucumber Yogurt Soup

Cucumber – 2 peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks

Scallion (spring onion) –1 large or 2 small, sliced

Olive oil – 1tbsp

Lemon juice – 1½ tbsp (about ½ a lemon)

Garlic clove – 2, crushed

Plain Yogurt – 2 cups

Salt – to taste

Garnish – Sprig of mint and dill

  • Put all of the ingredients, except the yogurt, into a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth.
  • Add yogurt and mix for about 30 seconds.
  • Store chilled until ready to use.
  • Serve in chilled glasses or fun soup bowls, topped with thin slice of cucumber, dill, and mint.



Large Heirloom (or sweet) tomatoes – 3, chopped

Red pepper – 1, deseeded and chopped

Cucumber – 1, peeled and deseeded

Onion – 1, chopped

Garlic – 2

Red wine vinegar – 4-5 tbsp

Sugar – ½ tsp

Salt – to taste

Garnish – croutons, scallion, and cubed cucumber

  • Add the first five ingredients into a food processor. If you want a smooth soup, blend the vegetables in smaller, separate batches.
  • Strain the vegetables through a colander to collect the liquid. Using the back of a large spoon, press the vegetables into the colander to extract and collect as much of the liquid as possible. Add a glass of chilled water to the vegetables and continue to squeeze out as much liquid from the vegetables, until you have just the skin and fibrous tissue left behind.
  • Add the red wine vinegar.
  • Add sugar and salt, and adjust them to balance out any acidity in the tomatoes.
  • Chill overnight.
  • Garnish just before serving.