When I think of umami flavors my mind instantly goes back to an “ah-ha moment”, a time of enlightenment , a breakthrough in my journey of acquisition of the English vocabulary. Ever since I was a little girl growing up in the Westernized culture of Argentina—or perhaps more accurately, in the European influenced region of the South American continent, I couldn’t quite conjure up the right verbiage for certain Korean words. You see, in the Korean context of speaking, eating, and going on about your day, there are far more telling notes by which to express oneself. It is a kind of passion, a kind of detail in the speech and onomatopoeic sounds that few languages can own up to.
In this particular case, the word umami is a Japanese term which so perfectly describes the Korean word 구수한 맛 (ghoo-soo-hahn-maht). This fifth flavor profile is far more complex than the rest of them. It isn’t fully one thing or another, and yet it isn’t merely salty, either. It is an amalgamation of salty with a tinge of smokey, perhaps slightly fishy, and definitely a large quantity of glutamate flavors. Think miso broth, dashi stock, umma’s old dwen-jang-jjee-gae, fermented nutty loaves of bread, creamy cod roe. Maybe try thinking of that “what-is-it” quality that you just can’t pin down. Well, now you can! Since having discovered some years ago that there’s actually a globally celebrated culinary term, umami, I’ve become just a bit more enthused in creating umami-fied recipes; now I know people can finally understand what I’m trying to convey through my cooking.
I perceive that the word has made it into the Epicurean sphere due to its Japanese origin. Japan, while still better known than its Korean counterpart in most areas of the arts, is slowly becoming equaled by Korean cuisine. Japan has definitely pioneered the way to open the public’s eye to a plethora of wonderful foods, such as those of Korean origin.
So to celebrate this “new” term describing an age-old flavor, I thought it was a great idea to add pancetta bits to my creamy tomato soup! Tomatoes simmered long enough with herbs and spices naturally create a hint of umami, but I like to intensify its base with cured meats such as pancetta. Of course, bacon is a close alternative that can be used in just about any savory dish such as this one. The strong notes of umami in this soup will surely keep your taste buds intrigued. It holds up for over a week in the fridge, perfect for making large batches when entertaining, or for an entree for yourself. Douse thick, crunchy rustic breads with this tomato soup and you’ll be surprised just how rich tomato soup can be.
Creamy Tomato Pancetta Soup (Umami Notes)
Makes approximately 6-8 servings
20 oz. pancetta bits
1 cup white wine
1 large tomato, sliced
1 red bell pepper, seeded
1 garlic head
1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp paprika powder
6 oz. tomato paste
2 cups water
kosher salt, to taste
1 tsp black pepper
3 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
cream and fresh basil for garnish
Cook the pancetta in a medium-large pot over medium heat, stirring around with a wooden spoon. Approximately 3 minutes. Pour in the wine and de-glaze the pot with the spoon, making sure to scratch off the cooked bits at the bottom. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 450 F degrees (232 celsius). Place the fresh tomatoes, bell pepper, and whole garlic on a lined baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and roast approximately 20 minutes. When done, simply squeeze out the garlic cloves and they will come right off.
Process the pancetta and wine mixture, sun dried tomatoes, roasted vegetables, all in a food processor until smooth.
Pour the mixture back into the pot. Add onion powder, paprika powder, tomato paste, water, salt, pepper, sugar, and milk. Simmer over low-medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Garnish with cream and basil if desired. Enjoy!