We know sweet, sour, salty, bitter, but many of us are less familiar with umami, that elusive fifth basic taste that was discovered by a Japanese scientist in the early twentieth-century and is only now gaining popularity stateside. What does it taste like? Think of umami as that savory quality in soy sauce, roasted meat, cooked tomatoes, and soy sauce. The best way to discover this world is with a burger. Believe it or not, the classic burger already hits all these primary flavors by getting sugar and umami from ketchup, sweet and sour from pickles, richness from the mayo, heat from mustard, and, of course, salt and still more umami from seasoned beef. The so-called "umami burger," showing up increasingly on restaurant menus and in next-gen fast food restaurants, turbocharges the classic by maintaining sacrosanct elements – bun and beef, tomato and lettuce – while using Asian flavors like kimchee, daikon, and soy sauce to crank up the volume everywhere else. The bottom line: The umami burger might be the most pleasurable dish man has ever created, and here are four ways to make one at home.
Dennis Lee's Namu Burger
Of all the Asian-influenced remakes of the hamburger – from L.A.'s shiitake-flavored Umami Burger to Chicago's kimchee-and-cheddar-kissed BopNGrill Kimchee Burger – Dennis Lee's Namu Burger stands above the rest. It's little surprise considering the San Francisco chef's specialty is Korean cuisine, a rich, rustic tradition that holds up as Asia's great comfort food. Lee, who is Korean-American, grew up in his mother's Japanese-Korean restaurant in Boston, mastering Asian flavors while also developing a fondness for McDonald's and hot Italian subs. He grew his culinary bones in the upscale restaurant of Boston chef Ming Tsai and forged his own style pushing a hot dog cart around Golden Gate Park, experimenting with high-end sausages and kimchee and Japanese toppings. Now he runs Namu Gaji, a Korean street-food joint in San Francisco, where he has synthesized his experience into one of the all-time great burgers. Lee replaces the classic bread-and-butter pickles with the explosive flavors of kimchee and pickled daikon radish; red onions get turbocharged with a glaze of maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce. Spicy daikon sprouts sneak in a little heat, and the bun and beef fuse it all. The resulting masterpiece fits into what Lee calls, with a smile, "stoner food: crunchy, salty, and rich."
Namu Burger at home
Most of the specialty ingredients here – like daikon radishes, aioli, and kimchee – can be found in any quality supermarket. For the rest, try an Asian specialty store or follow our listed alternatives.
• 8 oz high-quality beef, ideally 20 percent fat and grass-fed
• Little Gem lettuce, romaine hearts, or butter lettuce
• Pickled daikon radish. To pickle daikon (the common white radishes available in most grocery story), peel and thinly slice, cover in rice vinegar, and lightly season with sugar and salt. Refrigerate for 48 hours.
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• "Kaiware" sprouts (daikon sprouts). May be hard to find; alternatively, substitute raw, julienned daikon.
• A dollop of aioli. You can buy this in a jar or follow a classic recipe using egg yolk, oil, lemon, garlic, salt, pepper, and vinegar.
• Dijon mustard
• Swiss cheese
• Soy-glazed red onions. To make, slice 1 large red onion into 1/4-inch rounds, and sauté in a skillet in 1 tbsp canola oil over high heat. Add 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp maple syrup, and 1 tsp soy sauce. Set the heat to low and toss for several minutes. Set aside to cool.
• Kimchee relish
• 1 tbsp pureed or minced kimchee
• Brioche burger bun
Form beef into the shape of an indented hockey puck, with straight high walls and a thinner middle. (Burgers tend to blow up into balls when cooked.) Season both sides generously with salt only.
Cook in a hot iron skillet, flipping often until the meat has browned nicely. For a smokier flavor, grill over coals. Medium rare is best, especially with a grass-fed product.
Spread olive oil on the bun and grill both sides. Don't let hot buns rest on each other – it makes them soft from the residual steam.
Assemble the burger from bottom to top: bun, mustard, onions, patty, cheese, kaiware, pickled daikon, lettuce, tomato, kimchee relish, aioli, bun. Place dollops of the aioli and relish so they spread naturally over the burger, rather than thinning across the bun. The same goes for the mustard on the bun bottom. As you build, drizzle the lettuce and tomato with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
The trick to more savory meat
The Namu Burger keeps its patty simple, with salt as its only seasoning. But you can add more savory goodness, or umami, before grilling. Here are the ingredients for making that everyday burger special.
Ingredients, for one 8 oz raw patty:
Credit: Photograph by Travis Rathbone - Food Styling by Victoria Granof for Stockland Martel
• 1/2 tsp Vietnamese fish sauce (try Red Boat brand)
• 1/2 tsp anchovy paste
• 1 tbsp dried bonito flakes, minced
• 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce