Umami: A tip to cook vegan meals your “meat and potatoes” family members will love. {Vegan MoFo #2}

by JL Fields on October 2, 2012

My Vegan MoFo theme this year is “Go Vegan with JL…In the kitchen!” and I am answering your questions by offering food prep tips and tricks.

What makes my tips special?  Like most of you, I’m a home cook. Sure, I’ve taken a few culinary courses but, at the end of the day, I’m not classically trained in the kitchen, I live a busy life, and I want delicious, healthy, quick vegan meals just like you.  But since I have taken a few cooking classes – and I am a vegan lifestyle coach – I have a few tips and tricks that you might find helpful.

In a recent survey I queried: What challenges are you facing in food preparation in your vegan kitchen? My Vegan MoFo posts this month will focus on your responses to that question.  

Today’s question:

“How can I make things my meat and potatoes husband will eat too!”

The first thought that came to mind when I read this  was “Umami” –  I first learned about umami when I took a public cooking class with Robin Asbell.  In her book Big Vegan Asbell writes:

Vegans would do well to understand umami.  It is the Japanese  word for “meaty,” or the experience of well-rounded mouthfeel.  The Japanese have made an art form out of harnessing the amino acids and other molecules that spark this fifth taste.

In recent years, a taste receptor for umami was located, and scientists believe that we evolved to feel pleasure when we eat umami-rich foods because they are good for us.

This kind of umami comes from fermented foods like miso, soy sauce fermented bean pastes of all kinds … and tempeh. Other sources are mushrooms ..vine-ripened tomatoes…sweet corn, peas, beans, winter squash, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and almonds all have varying levels of umami. Sea vegetables, like the kombu used in miso soup, are full of umami chemistry.  Even nutritional yeast is loaded with umami….

Ginny Messina wrote the terrific post, Is Umami a Secret Ingredient of Vegan Activism? It was after reading her post that I had the “aha!” moment when it came to making foods that might appeal to my omnivore husband. (What? You didn’t know I have an omnivore husband?  I do!) Ginny wrote:

Regardless of the reason for this taste preference, it’s important to recognize that a penchant for meat and cheese may be innate or due to early experience. It’s about taste. And research consistently shows that taste is the primary driver behind food choices.

But that’s not as dismal for vegan diets as it sounds, because we can add umami to vegan recipes.

Thanks to Ginny’s post I began to intentionally think about umami ingredients to add to recipes. My husband has said that he doesn’t like nutritional yeast. So I just stopped telling him when I used it and he’s enjoyed the recipes. (Is that bad?!)  Over the weekend I did a cooking demonstration at a local farm market. My recipe was simple – just six ingredients:  vegetable broth, garlic, onion, tofu, kale and miso (umami!).  I was worried that the Creamy Kale Miso Soup might be just a bit too vegan for a “mainstream” audience.  Nope, every single person who tried the soup loved it.  Umami.

Bryanna Clark Grogan wrote a terrific article, The “forgotten” fifth flavour: Umami and suggests:

What plant-based foods contain umami compounds? Fermented foods such as soy sauce, miso, balsamic vinegar, and wine (which also has its own special flavor-enhancing qualities—but that’s another column!); dried shiitake or matsutake mushrooms; sea vegetables; green tea; vegetarian bouillon; tomato juice and other tomato products. Browning foods by sautéing, grilling, and caramelizing also produces umamicompounds.

Umami is a powerhouse in meatless dishes, where it supplies the robust element that usually comes from meat or poultry. Try it yourself, by using deeply browned, or caramelized, onions in a vegetarian soup or stew, for instance…

My tip: When cooking for your non-vegan family, think about umami-rich foods.

Here’s a dish I made last week that is rich with umami foods, including kombu, ume plum vinegar and potatoes. This stick-to-your-ribs meal just might please everyone in your multivore household!

Warm Adzuki Bean & Potato Salad

by JL Fields @ JL goes Vegan


  • 1 and 1/4 cup dry adzuki beans, soaked for 1 – 2 hours if using the pressure cooker/soak overnight if using the stove top method, rinsed and drained
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups of vegetable stock (I used my Fruit & Veggie Vegetable Stock)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 inch strip Kombu
  • Sea salt, to taste (optional)
  • 2 small potatoes
  • 2 heads romaine lettuce
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable stock
  • 1 – 2 teaspooons Ume plum vinegar


For the beans: PRESSURE COOKER

  • Heat the oil and garlic in the pressure cooker
  • Add vegetable stock, cinnamon, ginger, kombu, and beans.
  • Lock the pressure cooker lid in place and bring to pressure.
  • Cook at pressure for 14 minutes.
  • Allow for a natural release.
  • Remove the lid, away from you, and add salt (if desired).
  • Simmer, uncovered for a few more minutes if the beans are not completely done.

For the beans: STOVE TOP

  • Heat the oil and garlic in stock or bean pot.
  • Add vegetable stock, cinnamon, ginger, kombu, and beans.
  • Bring to a boil
  • Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups of vegetable stock (I use my Fruit & Veggie Vegetable Stock)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 inch strip Kombu

For the potatoes

  • If using a pressure cooker: Wash the potatoes, place potatoes (whole) on a steam rack over the stock and beans
  • If you are not using a pressure cooker: Boil or steam the potatoes.

For the lettuce

  • Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable stock in a skillet.
  • Tear lettuce into bite size pieces and add to the skillet.
  • Drizzle a touch of vinegar over the lettuce, cover the skillet and allow to simmer/steam for 3 – 5 minutes.

Bringing it together

Place the wilted lettuce on a plate, cover with adzuki beans and cubed potato.

Do you think about umami when cooking vegan meals? Share your favorite umami-rich foods and cooking techniques!

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  • Cila Warncke

    I’ve never specifically thought of “luring” non-vegs with umami before but it makes sense. One of my most successful vegan recipes is a vegan mac-and-“cheese” using nutritional yeast, which is beloved of omnis and herbies alike. Thanks for the insight.

    • JL

      I love the word luring, @twitter-414139319:disqus! :) Yep, I’m sure mac and “cheese” would do it! :)

  • Cadry’s Kitchen

    Yes, I think umami adds an additional layer of satisfaction that’s good to think about when cooking for non-vegans. (Or when cooking for vegans too for that matter! Umami is gooood.) Roasted garlic, sauerkraut, tamari, liquid smoke, red wine, and mushrooms, for example, give depth and richness that make a dish more full-bodied.

    Ginny Messina’s article prompted me to write about umami on my blog a while back too. Here’s the link in case you’re interested –

    • JL

      Thanks, @twitter-212968767:disqus.

  • TuxedoCat

    I love these tips! I never thought of the umami taste (even though I know what it is) as a way to entice the “meat and potato” lovers in our lives. Thanks.

    • JL

      Thanks, @TuxedoCat:disqus! I love the idea of umami and activism! :)

  • Jen

    These are great tips. I must live in a vegan cave of sorts because I’ve never heard of unami compounds. I lear-ned something today!

    • JL

      Thanks (and LOL), Jen!

  • Reia@TheCrueltyFreeReview

    Great post JL. I live with an omnivore and am always trying to find ways to make vegan meals that are just as good as any that would include beef or pork (he doesn’t eat chicken, thank goodness). I have continued using an ingredient that he said he didn’t like and just not told him; it ususally works except in the case of seitan :)
    I like to roast vegetables; it brings out a lot of great flavors while keeping the texture intact, making meals more filling.

    • JL

      Hi Reia, and thank you! Roasting veggies is such a great idea (I need to do that more!)

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  • Dawn Carlock

    I love this post and I had missed Ginny’s article, so thanks so much for sharing! I think the concept of umami is very important when cooking, and Ginny really nails it down in her piece. Your follow up with recipe is great!

    I adore miso, tamari, nutritional yeast, and all the other cats in the alley 😉
    XOXO!DawnVegan Fazool Blog http://veganfazool.blogspot.com2012 MoFo Theme: Homesteading it in October!

    • JL

      Thanks, Dawn!

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