One of the big benefits of eating whole, unrefined plant-based foods is that food starts to taste different – and wonderful! When you change to a whole-food plant-based diet, cutting out lots of refined fats and sugars as well as high-sodium animal products, it takes a few weeks for your taste-buds to change – but only a few. Suddenly, you realise that each dish tastes delicious unadorned. This old blog post tells you more about taste.
But even though natural flavours start coming through in individual, fresh products, how to combine and enhance them to get a taste sensation still comes down to cooking technique.
There’s lots of ways to add depth of flavour ranging from careful use of herbs and seasoning, to adding in seeds and citrus. There’s also slightly processed condiments, which provide umami, that lovely savoury taste that’s hard to describe but utterly recognisable.
Slow-cooked meaty stews and parmesan cheese are umami, but off the menu with a plant-based diet. So where else can it be found? Identified back in 1908 by a chemist called Kikunae Ikeda, umami was found in a rich stock made from kombu, a type of seaweed. He discovered that an amino acid in kombu – glutamate – was responsible for the savoury flavour. Unfortunately, he also discovered how to make it in large quantities chemically in a factory and created MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) which is so prevalent in processed foods and can trigger sensitivities in a lot of people.
There are other plants that provide umami – mushrooms for one. High in glutamate, wild mushrooms in particular have a lovely umami flavour when cooked. Surprisingly, tomatoes, peas and sweetcorn do as well. Fermenting foods also releases the umami flavour, which is a double bonus as this also helps support gut health.
One way of getting this flavour into plant-based foods is to use a savoury flavouring like soya sauce. Around for thousands of years, it’s traditionally made from fermented soya beans with some form of grain to develop the flavour. It should take a long time to make, but most modern cheap commercial soya sauces used hydrolysed soya protein concentrate and wheat, and is made in just 3 days. Which might be one reason why so many people are sensitive to it (putting the MSG to one side). It certainly doesn’t agree with me. But I do like a savoury boost, so what are the alternatives?
Well there’s two main ones – tamari and coconut amines. Both can be considered ‘processed’ and are high in salt, so if you are using food to reverse a health problem or reducing your salt intake they might not be for your on a regular basis. However, as a whole-food plant-based diet tends to be lower in salt than a high meat, low fibre diet, and full of potassium-containing veggies, prudent use of these flavourings can go a long way.
This is the Japanese version of soya sauce. Still made from fermented soya beans, it has a gentle but deep flavour, providing a lovely savouriness to a range of plant-based dishes. Because it is less salty and intense compared to soya sauce, it has a wider range of uses in a range of plant-based dishes. It’s also useful for the sensitive eater as it contains no wheat and is therefore gluten free. It is however still fermented, so may not be suitable for someone with a yeast intolerance. Coconut amines (see below) should be used instead. Found in larger supermarkets and health food shops, tamari can still be a bit hard to find; it can also be bought from online stores and on amazon here.
A sauce that provides that lovely umami flavour in savoury dishes. Made from coconut sap and salt, it’s a good replacement for anyone who cannot tolerate soya sauce or tamari. Soya and gluten free, it’s also naturally aged so should be more tolerable for anyone who also has to avoid fermented products. Found in specialist health food stores or online and amazon here.
There are a number of recipes in my new book, Eat Well Live Well with The Sensitive Foodie that use tamari or coconut amines. But there’s still lots of recipes I like to make that I couldn’t squeeze in to the book. These super-tasty savoury seeds is one of them. You can buy them in the shops, like these yummy munchy seeds, but they can be hard to find, and carry a higher price tag than making your own. Apart from costing more, they might also not be suitable for the sensitive eater, whether because of problems with fermented products, soy or gluten. So making your own means your savoury seeds are made just right for you.
This recipe features sunflower seeds, but can be adapted to use any single or combination of seeds. They keep for a couple of weeks in an air-tight container (if you manage not to nibble your way through them first) and can be used to add a delicious umami kick to soups, salads and stews. And as they take a mere 10 minutes to make, it’s super-easy to make a batch whenever you want them. Enjoy!
Toasted savoury seeds
- 75 grams sunflower, pumpkin or mixed seeds
- 3 tablespoons tamari, soya sauce or coconut amines according to choice
- Place a good non-stick or stainless steel pan over a medium heat then add the seeds. Pour over the savoury sauce of choice (as detailed above) and stir well to combine. Cook gently stirring regularly until the seeds start to darken and release a lovely savoury aroma. Do not over toast. This can take 5-8 minutes depending on how high you have the heat.
- Tip the toasted savoury seeds out onto a plate to cool, then transfer to a clean jar or bowl with a lid to store. Use as a snack or flavouring to salads, soups or main dishes.