Sunday, September 16, 2012


UMAMI is often referred to as the "5th" taste. Sweet, salty, sour and bitter are considered to be the 4 "primary" tastes. "Umami" in Japanese translates as "deliciousness". Foods high in "umami" have a full flavoured savouriness and unique mouth feel that can be difficult to describe. "Yummy" works...

     Seaweed, mushrooms, tomato, parmesan cheese and cured meats are foods high in "umami"

For many centuries, the received wisdom was that all flavours were a combination of the 4 primary tastes. At about the same time however, a Japanese scientist named Ikeda and the famous French Chef Auguste Escoffier were having their doubts. Escoffier was in the process of revoloutionizing French cooking. He had invented a heavily reduced veal stock that formed the basis for many of his sauces. His customers were going wild over his new creations. "Like nothing they'd ever tasted before..."

   Continuously cooking, straining and reducing the veal stock concentrates the flavours 
            and is the starting point for hundreds of Escoffier's most famous recipes

Oceans away, Ikeda-san was puzzling over what it was that made his wife's homemade dashi stock taste so damn good. Dashi is the starting point for many Japanese soups, sauces and recipes and is made from dried tuna, seaweed and small anchovies. It wasn't a salty taste, but richer; complex and more flavourful. And it certainly didn't fall under the categories of sweet, sour or bitter, so what exactly was it?

        Making Japanese dashi the traditional way. Unlike most French stocks, dashi is quick 
                            to make and does not need to be reduced

Years of lab work paid off and in 1908 Ikeda succeeded in isolating an amino acid that is a "glutamate" or glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is tasteless. Until you break it down by cooking, curing, fermenting or ripening the food in question. The deconstructed glutamate ("L" or "D" glutamate) is what lights up your tastebuds. It also combines with the foods that it is prepared with and makes them taste better as well.

   Fresh fish is delicious, but low in glutamates. A drop of soy sauce is a "U-bomb"; a powerful source of umami that elevates sushi from so-so to spectacular

Back in France, Chef Escoffier was also hard at work. By cooking down veal bones and vegetables, he had hit on a highly effective way of drawing out and concentrating umami in his stocks, which formed the base for his sauces. His use of tomatoes, mushrooms and cheeses (all high in glutamates) further elevated the yummy factor in his hundreds of new recipes.

        "Chicken Chasseur" is a classic Escoffier recipe packed with umami rich ingredients

Curing, drying and aging meats and cheeses builds umami and boosts the flavour factor in these foods. A thin slice of a well-aged sausage or fine cheese atop a slice of fresh bread is a simple, savoury delight. In the past, curing, drying and fermenting foods also helped preserve them without refrigeration.
                      Italy, Spain and Germany are famous for their sausages and cured meats

Some of our favourite dishes are superb combinations of foods naturally high in glutamates. Think of a ceaser salad. Crisp lettuce by itself is blah. It's the dressing that makes it. Anchovies and parmesan cheese are packed with umami.

Bacon is another "U bomb'. Probably why it ends up in salads and sandwichs; on burgers and pizzas; even finding it's way into ice cream and chocolate. Is it the umami in bacon that allows it to make almost anything taste good?

                  Bacon Maple Miso Milkshake? From an umami standpoint, it should work......

Tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes are high in natural glutamates. They pair well with cheeses and these combinations are found in kitchens around the world. Pierogies or piroshki are popular in Russia and eastern Europe. Savoury versions are often stuffed with umami laden potato, mushroom, meat and/or cheese.

Italian cooks have come up with countless recipes incorporating tomato and cheese in pastas, salads and, of course, on pizzas....

Ikeda was the first to chemically isolate and name L-glutamate. But umami rich fermented products have long been a staple for Asian and South East Asian cooks. Soy sauce, fish sauce and fermented bean pastes all pack a powerful umami punch. Thai and Vietnamese Chefs rely on different "fish sauces" to elevate the flavour in their dishes.

Many brands/grades of fish sauce are produced throughout South East Asia

As with olive oil and balsmic vinegars, fish sauce comes in many different "grades". The quality varies depending on the kinds and parts of the fish used, and the production process. Colour is another important factor, and generally speaking, a lighter, golden colour fish sauce is preferred over a dark, coffee-coloured one. Personal preference plays a part; a strong, salty taste pleases one palate while another prefers a sweeter, lighter sauce.

Interestingly, fish sauce was first used in ancient Rome. "Garum" was made using larger fish like tuna and mackerel as well as small fish like anchovies. It's use spread to kitchens across the Roman Empire and beyond.

            The ancient ruins of a Roman fish sauce factory. Fish guts would be removed as quickly as possible, mixed with salt and other ingredients and allowed to ferment in the sun
 Many believe that Britian's famous Worcestershire sauce borrowed from fermented fish sauce recipes originating in ancient times. Impossible to believe? Maybe not....anchovies, tamarind and cloves are all ingredients in the sauce that can season anything....

                                                           "NEW!"....probably not so much....

MSG is a chemical derivative of naturally occuring glutamates. It is also marketed as "Ajinomoto" and other names by companies around the world. It is commonly found in processed fast foods and prepared sauces and seasonings. Many people are looking to avoid MSG consumption and look for "no MSG" added restaurants and packaging. At Sanbiki we do not add MSG to any of our dishes. Instead, we use homemade stocks that harness the natural glutamates in our seaweed, seafood and other ingredients.

"Umami". It sounds very Japanese; very new and trendy. But the glutamates responsible for umami are anything but. Chefs and housewives around the world have long recognized that certain ingredients could be used and combined to develop flavour and add depth to their dishes. Umami's universal appeal is perhaps to be expected. You could say we've developed a taste for glutamates before we develop "taste". As babies in the womb we are surrounded by amniotic fluid that is rich in glutamates. It's also present in our mothers milk!

More next time...

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