You either love it or hate it. That’s what they say about Marmite, a pungent and peculiar spread made primarily from spent brewer’s yeast, a British brother of the more widely known Australian Vegemite. Brown, sticky, and sort of glossy, Marmite looks like molten Nutella but tastes far, far from it. Its flavor is something like soy sauce, something like a dry stout, and something like burnt meat; bitter, tangy, rich, aggressive, and ultimately somewhat hard to describe. Marmite is the Henry Rollins of condiments.
As lemons are to sourness, as hops are to bitterness, as honey is to sweetness, and as salt is to, um, saltiness, Marmite is to umami, that obscure fifth basic taste, sometimes translated as “savoriness” and sometimes as “meatiness.” People rarely notice umami as a strong element of any given food’s flavor profile, maybe because they don’t really know how to describe it. You don’t often hear people take a slurp of miso soup or a bite of a roasted tomato and say, “Whoa! It’s so umami!” the same way you might hear people say, “Whoa! It’s so sweet!” when they take a sip of German wine.
But if anything could make someone really notice umami, it’s Marmite. The smoky brown goo is so dense and heavy with free glutamates that even a teaspoonful lands like an umami cluster bomb on the palate. The main ingredient in Marmite is yeast extract, or autolyzed yeast: yeast that has been killed by its own waste, its proteiny cell walls cracked, broken down, and sloughed off. Autolyzed yeast is a rich source of glutamic acid, one of two key components (along with sodium) in the compound monosodium glutamate – more infamously known by the abbreviation MSG. And MSG, I should note, was first discovered in 1907 by a Japanese scientist aiming to isolate the chemical source of umami from sheets of seaweed.
In other words, Marmite is like MSG in goo form. However, unlike MSG, its flavor isn’t pure umami; it is also quite bitter, lightly spicy, a bit sweet and fairly tangy – similar, in an evil-twin sort of way, to Worcestershire sauce. Traditionally, Marmite is spread thinly on bread or toast, sometimes with a smear of butter or a few slices of cheese for good measure. It is also used in trace amounts to add a “meaty” flavor to vegetarian dishes. I love Marmite on bread, crackers, or cheese, but after recently acquiring a jar of my own (thank you, Mrs. Pitman!), I couldn’t resist experimenting with such an extraordinary flavor in the kitchen. And after a few trials and errors (a word about natto: use with caution), I have successfully crafted my own Marmite-based recipe, incorporating it into a classic Japanese flavor combination: umeboshi 梅干し (pickled plum) and shiso しそ (perilla leaves). As usual, all the measurements I list are total approximations; just taste as you go along to make sure the flavor is okay. The trick is to balance the Marmite without obscuring it.
Chicken with Marmite Umeshiso Sauce
400 grams boneless white meat chicken, cut into strips
2 tablespoons Marmite
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup sake
4 umeboshi, pits removed
7-8 shiso leaves, roughly torn
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
sesame oil, for frying
vegetable oil, for frying
- Dust chicken on both sides with white pepper.
- Combine Marmite, honey, sugar, sake, umeboshi, shiso, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce in a blender on high until homogenous and chunk-free.
- Heat sesame oil and vegetable oil over medium heat in a deep non-stick pan. Lay chicken in the oil and pour on 1/3 of the sauce.
- Cook for a few minutes, then turn over and add another 1/3 of the sauce. Cook until nearly done and sauce has partially caramelized.
- Add remaining sauce and cook another minute to heat sauce.
Serve with corn cooked in butter and soy sauce. Oh, and if you must use salt, be careful! Marmite is extremely salty and it will taste saltier still once cooked. I would avoid adding any salt during cooking; have it on the table and decide after tasting whether to add it.