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From TV Dinners to Umami Bombs


Growing up, I indulged in my fair share of frozen TV dinners. They came in a coated cardboard tray, neatly partitioned into four compartments. Each boasted a variety of delights such as Salisbury steak, rice pilaf, a brownie, and a dinner roll. Alternatively, I had my other go-to, Chicken Kiev. In two-minutes’ time, I could pop it from its plastic pouch, microwave on high, cut through the orange, breaded mound, and release a garlic-infused herb oil that spilled all over my plate. Never mind that they were high in saturated fat and sodium content, had all kinds of additives and preservatives, and were extremely low in nutrient density… they were all I knew.

It wasn’t until I started watching the Food Network as an adult that I began to see the value in being able to recognize and pronounce the ingredients in my food. As this happened, my taste buds began to change. Instead of reaching for the familiar, easy-zap brown dinners, I became more adventurous and open to trying foods that were good for my body. And I eventually craved them. Who would’ve guessed that the food world consisted of more than instant mashed potatoes?

Several years and television shows later, I stumbled upon the fifth flavor, Umami. This Japanese term—alongside bitter, salty, sweet, and sour—refers to the depth of taste that’s both “delicious” and “savory.” It embodies the richness and complexity found in foods like aged cheeses, truffle mushrooms, and caramelized meats.

Umami characterizes fermented sauces and condiments like fish sauce, miso paste, and kimchi, which enhance the depth of a dish. All of these foods contain natural compounds, as do homemade broths, olives, and ripe tomatoes, that make for mouthwatering and satisfying flavors. Umami makes food truly craveable.

But that’s not all. When these savory foods are paired together in certain combinations, something magical happens in the world of food science. An umami synergy is formed and eight times the flavor is unlocked. It’s called an umami bomb. You’ve had one if you’ve tasted a truffle risotto, a soy glazed salmon, or a hearty Bolognese sauce. Korean Bulgogi bowls, Swiss cheeseburgers topped with mushrooms and caramelized onions, and tomato soup with parmesan cheese… all umami bombs.

So, are umami bombs mere accidents? Is there a reason why TV dinners fall flat compared to a grilled steak smothered in bleu cheese? Or is there a scientist behind the science? Do they point to something more?

The Bible tells us that all things—including our taste buds—were created by and for Jesus (Colossians 1:16).

This sheds light on what it may have been like for the Son of God to have been the architect behind our hunger pangs and then go forty days in the desert without food… to have created our tongues’ taste receptors to respond pleasurably to certain food compounds and then be humanly satisfied by a good bone broth. It’s probable that the designer of deliciousness knew both what it meant to feel his stomach growl and be in a food coma.

Considering his role in creation and his subsequent incarnation, when Jesus used food as a teaching tool, it’s evident he spoke from a place of authority and expertise. As the designer of both hunger and satisfaction, we would do well to listen to his words:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”
Matthew 5:6

This invitation into blessing is one of eight appeals Jesus makes in Matthew 5, a section of Scripture commonly known as the Beatitudes. His promises point to a flourishing that is both now and yet to come. And they reveal an upside-down way of living that isn’t exactly on-trend or inline with our default tendencies toward self-sufficiency, endless me-time, Karma, or manifesting our best lives now.

Instead, Jesus’s upside-down way of living comes through meekness, mercy, mourning, and hungering and thirsting to do good.

It’s clear that Jesus wants to transform our palettes and our appetites by introducing us to a way of living that is truly satisfying. Rather than see us settle for lives of self-preoccupation and self-indulgence, Jesus wants us to indulge in the righteous good works he’s prepared in advance for us right around us.

So, what does it look like to respond to his invitation to hunger and thirst for righteousness in our neighborhood corners? It might mean stopping to say hello to a neighbor or dropping off a meal. Really, it’s any curse-reversing act we do to put things right in our communities, whether picking up trash, hosting a dinner party, or checking in on a neighbor in need. It’s putting wrongs right.

I wasn’t meant to continue binging TV dinners and Chicken Kievs, but my tastes had to be trained. Initially, I would’ve turned up my nose in disgust at a truffle risotto or a black bean chili with chocolate. It’s similar when we turn our noses up at the nearby work God has for us, thinking it’s unappetizing or will just deplete us. Ironically, we fill up on me-time and live as those who are spiritually malnourished.

Through the Beatitudes, Jesus is inviting us into a better story than TV dinners. He is the one who purposefully designed our brains to release feelings of joy when we participate in his kingdom work. And he offers flourishing for those who crave and are satisfied by doing God’s good will.

Here’s the magical flavor combination: When our words about Jesus are paired with good actions that point to him, a redemptive umami bomb goes off, allowing our neighbors to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). Just think—ordinary conversations and unradical gestures serve as appetizers to whet our neighbors’ appetites for God.

After all, Jesus tells us:

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Matthew 13:13-16

Because something about the combination of good news and deeds is totally umami.

Jesus invites us to bring flourishing to our communities through the Beatitudes. Learn about how Jesus's countercultural values can transform us in Neighborhood Reimagined: How the Beatitudes Inspire our Call to be Good Neighbors by Chris and Elizabeth McKinney. 

Love Your Neighbors