You know how sometimes you learn a new word, and then you suddenly see that word everywhere? This week that word has been umami. It suddenly seems to be everywhere.
Umami is the so-called fifth taste, in addition to salty, bitter, sweet and sour. It was discovered by a Japanese researcher, who named it "umami", which has no literal translation in English. "Deliciousness" has been suggested, as well as savouriness. This taste is triggered by the free (unbound) glutamates in food, which is why MSG—monosodium glutamate—enhances flavour. But you can get it in your food without adding MSG.
Glutamates are found in protein-rich foods, like meat, fish and parmesan cheese, but they're also found abundantly in plant foods such as tomatoes and mushrooms, particularly the dried forms of these foods. It might, therefore, be a good idea for anyone transforming to a vegan diet to try to incorporate as many umami-rich foods as possible. Miso, tamari, dried mushrooms—all have intense umami tastes.
Tamari, a type of soy sauce, is available at any Asian market. I've been using it for years instead of soy sauce, and now I know why it tastes so much better. Miso, when added to soup, enhances its flavor, as I discovered in this recipe. And if you've poured out the liquid after rehydrating dried porcini mushrooms, you've just poured out umami-rich stock that will add zing to whatever you've got simmering.
But if you're a raw foodie, you may be missing out on something. Cooking processes, including browning, fermenting, and brewing, enhance umami-ness. Adding sweetness, such as sugar to tomatoes, also brings out umami flavor.
More plant foods containing umami flavors include truffles, marmite, wine, and yes, potato chips. Even bread, with its gluten content and browned crust, will excite your umami receptors.
If you want to learn more about umami, you can read about it at the Umami Information Center. For more on vegan cooking and umami, you can subscribe to Bryanna Clark Grogan's vegan newsletter here and read about it in her last issue.
If you're really into umami, maybe you can join the Society for Research on Umami Taste. And if you've got time, you can read this long article with quotes from chefs familiar with umami and which includes umami-rich recipes.
You might want to read it over some green tea, which, as you guessed, is rich in umami.