Spread hot chilli peppers: Natural umami pastes are the new Vegemite

Cookbook author Alice Zaslavsky with her new Tumami spread made with organic tomatoes and black garlic.
Cookbook author Alice Zaslavsky with her new Tumami spread made with organic tomatoes and black garlic. Photo: Scott McNaughton

With names such as Tumami and Black Betty Bam, more and more umami-heavy spreads and condiments made from natural ingredients are popping up in Australian food stores. Some are thick and pungent, like fancy Vegemite, while others are packed with chilli and ready to enhance everything from avocado toast to bolognese.

Umami, broadly, is a savoury flavour characteristic that is found in ingredients such as tomatoes, soy sauce, mushrooms and cured meats.

It's also "one of those words that's spoken in hushed tones for fear of coming off like a pretentious foodie", says Cameron Stephens, founder of the online artisan condiment store Condimental.

"However, condiments with umami are increasingly being embraced because of the mouth-watering sensation they create."

That mouth-watering feeling occurs when taste receptors respond to glutamates and nucleotides in umami-rich foods. It has long been possible to enhance dishes with umami by adding monosodium glutamate (MSG), but the same amino acids and molecules occur naturally in lots of vegetables and meats.

Byron Bay-based company Oomite was one of the first Australian brands to launch a natural umami-heavy condiment. Business partners Magdalena Roze and Katie Graham spent almost two years testing recipes to finalise their product.

"It turns out it's not that easy to make an all-natural umami-packed thick spread," Graham says. With a similar appearance and texture as Vegemite, Oomite is made with organic, "very slow-fermented" miso and is sold exclusively to restaurants and cafes.

Graham and Roze recently collaborated with the cultured butter company Pepe Saya to create a product for home use, too.

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"We thought it would be fun to create an Oomite butter that could be spread straight on toast, tossed through pasta or rested on steak," Roze says. "We see it as both a condiment and an ingredient – something that elevates a meal, whether it's a crumpet or cacio e pepe [spaghetti]."

In addition to spreadable mites, boutique producers are making umami-heavy chilli sauces and oils. Many are largely inspired by Lao Gan Ma, the cult brand of MSG-bolstered "chilli crisp" sauce made in China that features a somewhat perturbed grandmother on the label.

Popular new Australian brands include Melbourne's Chotto Motto Crispy Chilli Oil, which is made with dried chilli, sesame seeds, fried garlic, fermented black beans and gluten-free soy sauce. It's at its best on top of dumplings and noodles.

UmamiPapi Chilli Oil also hails from Melbourne and ships to homes around the country, while Lulu's Remedy is hand-made in Sydney's inner west with four types of Mexican chilli and available to order from Condimental and other online stores. An anchovy-enhanced variety of Lulu's doubles down on the umami and is ideal for stirring through pasta with parsley and lemon.

Since Condimental's launch in 2017, Stephens has noted a significant surge in demand for his umami condiments and chilli sauces. "People are no longer scared that tasting umami means added MSG," he says. "They know glutamate can be found in many natural ingredients."

Back in the Vegemite-esque spread category, Byron Bay's Black Betty Bam is sold nationally and stars organic tahini and tamari, while Melbourne-based cookbook writer Alice Zaslavsky launched her Tumami tomato and black garlic paste in April.

"It'll enhance anything," Zaslavsky says. "Put simply, it's really really fancy tomato paste."

The In Praise of Veg author says she was inspired by the way Japan's food scene has embraced umami for years, with Kewpie mayonnaise achieving particular international acclaim for its addictive savoury taste.

For Zaslavsky, the move towards natural ingredients in her umami spread was a case of human behaviour's ever-changing relationship with technology. "The pendulum naturally swings between people and technology," she says.

"Post World War II, [the market] was full of processed food because it was like 'wow, look at what we can do'. Now we're in a pandemic-fuelled crisis and people have gone back to natural, non-altered produce and flavours because they need comforting. Pretty simple really."

with Callan Boys