I Want My Umami


Pissaladière: umami francaise

Yeah, yeah, I know: you hate anchovies. You think they taste like hairy fish.

This is the point in the conversation when my Mother would chime in, “But that’s the best part!”

While I didn’t share her enthusiasm for certain items that have received that endorsement over the years, when it comes to anchovies I agree with Mom. They’re good. As she would say, “You just haven’t had them prepared properly.”

A while ago I mentioned in this space that I used to have a waitering gig where I prepared Caesar salads tableside. Folks would crow about how much they loved Caesar salads – until they saw the little fish filets waiting to be thrown into the bowl. Like some eager but poorly dressed party-goer, they were not admitted to the disco, the folks at the table turning their collective thumbs down with the certainty of an experienced bouncer.

Little did they know: a Caesar salad without anchovy is like a Twix without the cookie inside. It’s just not the same thing.

I think what I am saying is fairly obvious: no one eats anchovies solo, they are almost always part of a recipe, and the flavor they add is vital. Don’t leave them out (please).

A huge problem is those little tins of anchovies that people buy. Don’t buy those. Perhaps more than with many other ingredients, this is one item where it pays to buy the good stuff, and it costs very little more to do so. Here’s my “blind side-by-side” taste test: Anchovy from the tin tastes like a salt attack. Quality anchovies (usually sold in little glass jars) are somewhat salty, yes, but not hairy, and are much more complex in flavor, adding a certain nutty quality to what you are preparing. They are subtle, and in certain recipes folks will be unable to put their collective finger on what that “other” flavor is. (Even better and less salty – when you can find them – are White Flat Anchovies.)

The Japanese have a word for the other flavor: umami, which translates (albeit loosely) as “good flavor.” Their assertion is that this “savory-ness” is one of the basic tastes your tongue is tuned to receive, along with sweet, and sour. The Japanese have an ingredient they often use to “game” the umami of food: MSG.

Of course, mention MSG to someone and you are likely to get a negative reaction. I’m not here to advocate its use, I avoid the stuff too. If you flip through cookbooks from the fifties and sixties you will see it listed as an ingredient along with salt and pepper. Chances are that Mad Men’s Betty (Draper) Francis has a container of “Accent” meat tenderizer in her cupboard, a product that was comprised mainly of MSG.

Many post-Moo Goo Gai Pan headaches, body aches, and who-knows-how-many-other-physical-maladies-real-or-imagined later, MSG finds itself the subject of the same fear and loathing as saccharine – so much so that most Chinese restaurants post on their menu that they don’t use the stuff.

What’s the big deal? I contend that there is no need for MSG at all; that’s why there are anchovies. As a laboratory for my use of the anchovy as umami ingredient we need go no further than the south of France.

I have a friend who lived in Nice while working for an American computer company. While there, she was turned on to a local specialty called Pissaladière. If you are unfamiliar with Pissaladière, the little slip of paper in your fortune cookie says that this is your lucky day to learn something new.

Quite simply, Pissaladière is an onion tart cross-hatched with anchovies, and dotted with Nicoise olives. Its big buddy is the Pizza. What I love about Pissaladière is that on paper it is a collection of flavors that you and I think of as being fairly aggressive.

But keep in mind that we are talking about food from the Riviera, a resort, a vacation spot, and that is the spirit that pervades the taste of the ingredients: a little laid back compared to their everyday selves. The tone here is harmony.

So while onions are usually spiky, here they have been caramelized to the point of sweet jamminess. The nicoise olives are mere dots that lend their mellow woodiness, and the anchovies are sort of the life of party, lending – yes – their saltiness to counteract the sweetness of the onions, all from the comfy chaise of crunchy pizza dough.

And while the basic ingredients sound simple, this is actually an exercise in blending and layering flavors so that the finished product tastes only like the sum of the parts, yet somehow transformed.

You can find my recipe for Pizza dough here, but caramelized onions are a bit deceptive. It is easy to think of them as just onions, sliced, and sautéed in a pan. Instead, I recommend you think about this less as a vegetable and more as a jam. These onions require a bit of babysitting; the more you stand and stir, the more you will prevent scorching or burning them and the sweeter and suppler they will become. You want silk, not a pile of brown onions. (A teaspoon or two of brown sugar early on – just after the onions have started to look translucent – is a worthy cheat that will yield great results.) Expect to spend about a half hour, perhaps more, “keeping an eye on” the onions.

Pissaladière makes a great hors d’ouevre with a chilled Rosé, or with a salad, as a great main course.

…and it’s a great umami “fix.” Who needs Doritos?


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