Food Music Playlist #18: Umami

I don’t tweet all that much these days–now that I’m back in a desk job, I am tweeting to the work account all day–but I still like to celebrate when I hit a milestone. So, as I did back at 300 followers, I offered the 400th follower the dubious privilege of selecting the theme for my next Food Music Playlist. The chooser was Jackie Lam, and she picked umami as the theme.

First off: What is umami? At the moment, umami is considered one of the five (maybe six, now) basic tastes alongside sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami flavors are characterized by a savory taste and a long-lasting or coating mouthfeel, and are associated with glutamate compounds. Umami flavors are found naturally in foods such as broth, mushrooms, many vegetables including tomatoes and spinach, and fermented ingredients such as cheese, soy sauce, and yeasts.

This is a exciting choice for a Food Music Playlist. Music is saturated with lyrics about sweetness, but you don’t hear too many ballads comparing one’s love to the comfort of chicken soup or the stimulating tang of miso. Savory tastes are vital to most of our experiences of food as comforting, satisfying, or enjoyable–but in music, the infrequent allusions to umami foods tend to be whimsical or weird.

King Curtis, “Memphis Soul Stew”

Stewing, cooking, and heating up are food terms that work their way into jazz songs as a metaphor for the ways the sounds blend together and pick up volume or tempo. In this famous example, the recipe for “stew” calls for bass, drums, and guitar progressively added into they merge, like the layers of ingredients that thicken a savory stew.

Michael Franti, “Red Beans and Rice”

This song is like a musical lifestyle blog, recommending ginger and licorice root as remedies and musing on the effect different foods have on the body. But the bridge comes back to a simple savory meal. This meal is intended to be comforting and welcoming–he assures the listener that you can “cook away your fears”–and maybe a little alluring. I particularly enjoy this line: “The way to my heart is with a garlic clove / It smells hella sexy when it’s on the kitchen stove.” If you like this playful paean, you may like to know that Michael Franti also filmed a how-to for his black beans and rice recipe.

Amanda Palmer, “Vegemite (The Black Death)”

Not everyone finds umami flavors comforting or sexy. Vegemite is a paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast extracts, so it is basically concentrated glutamates to the max. But in this mournful ballad by Amanda Palmer for her British husband, Neil Gaiman, umami is not the taste of love:

How can you love Vegemite?
It tastes like sadness
It tastes like batteries
It tastes like asses

Shonen Knife, “Sushi Bar”

Sushi is essentially a symphony of umami flavors: soy sauce, nori, and dark-fleshed fishes like tuna and salmon are all rich in those glutamate compounds. So, surprisingly, is green tea, which gets a shout-out here.

Andrew Bird, “Dora Goes to Town”

I couldn’t tell you what meaning this song is intended to convey, but Dora’s carrying a great many savory flavors to town: the ham in her handbag, the eggs and olives, the mustard, and the creamed spinach sandwiches all qualify.

The Dear Hunter, “The Poison Woman”

Doing a search for “umami” on song lyrics databases turns up no fewer than three different bands with the name “Umami” and no food-related lyrics. Doing a search for “savory” on said databases turns up a horror show of songs by Frank Zappa, from Sweeney Todd, and other gory compositions. This creepy tune was among the mildest of these songs which use “savory” to describe something dangerous or disgusting: here, it’s a poison that goes down smoothly.

Thanks for the suggestion!

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