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...

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Men (and women) with an interest and/or experience in espionage, sabotage, infiltration, intimidation and assasination. Japanese language ability a must, ethics optional. Will train. Applications being accepted by your local Samurai lord. Absolute discretion assured...

"Ninja Warriors" are often portrayed as violent masters of the martial arts, cloaked head to toe in black, wielding long swords and hurling fancy killing stars. The reality was somewhat different. The depiction of ninjas in black reflects their desire to be "invisible". As their missions most often involved espionage, assasination and/or infiltration of enemy strongholds, they assumed any disguise that helped them achieve their objective. Cloaked in the garb of a "Komuso" (Zen Priest) allowed a ninja to hide his face and seem non-threatening.

Komuso costume provided ninjas with a perfect disguise for daytime travel. The "flute" was also an excellent way to deliver a poison dart.....

Disguises also allowed the ninja to collect valuable information. Dressed as a merchant, monk or traveller, they could move amongst the crowds, making enquiries. Finding out where their target ate, drank and slept. Stories shared over sake might reveal the location of a secret backdoor or previously unknown guard post....Ninjas sought to assimilate themselves, and they were often able to move freely inside their target's compounds before striking.

Ninja are pop culture icons in and outside of Japan

Ninjutsu, or "the art of stealth/invisibility" as it translates in Japanese, originated around 600AD in Japan. It is said that many of the strategies and also the philosophy behind Japanese ninjutsu originated in China and India. Interestingly, there was a strong connection between monks and warriors. It was not unusual to encounter warrior-monks in ancient China and Japan. One's philosophy, spirituality and self-discipline was the starting point for understanding and learning about the world. How one applied their knowledge and experience depended on the individual and their situation.

          Ninja attire needed to be lightweight and to allow for free and quiet movement

Ninja shared some methods of training and weapons with members of the noble Samurai class. However, when it came to philosophy and ethics, the two were miles apart. Like the knights of old England, samurai were sworn to uphold a strict code of honour (called "bushido") and loyalty to one's 'Daimyo" ("lord") was paramount. Samurai warriors fought face to face, unafraid to annouce their intentions, challenges and alliances. While a samurai was forbidden to stab you in the back, a ninja (for a price) always would.

Samurai usually wore heavy protective armour when fighting

Humiliated or failed Samurai would often commit ritual suicide (Seppuku). Samurai who wanted to get a dirty job done (but not soil his own hands) would hire a ninja. Honour, loyalty and lofty ideals were of no consequence to a ninja. Getting the job done at the negotiated price as quickly and quietly as possible was far more important. Which led to the creation of some unique "equal opportunity" employment situations for women... 

                                Send a woman to do a ninja's job? Why not?
                  As long as the job got done, the who and the how were details... 

"Kunoichi" were female ninjas.  Widowed by her samurai husband, Mochizuke Chiyome founded an underground "ninja school'" for girls. Orphaned or abandoned girls were taken in and trained in the ways of ninjutsu. They also learned many of the arts associated with geisha (as well as those of the prostitute!). Using one or a combination of these "skills" allowed them to get up close and personal to their almost exclusively male targets. Who might find themselves caught with their pants (and more importantly) their guard down.....

Kunoichi were often able to get physically close to their targets, so training in "short range" weaponry was popular

Like the elite Samurai warrior class, ninja were skilled in the martial arts. But equally important was their mastery of self discipline, "spiritual refinement" and unarmed combat. Geography, astronomy and the ecology of animals, and even insects, were also studied. A ninja needed to be able to survive for long periods in the wild, treat any injuries by themself and navigate without a map. Ants and termites indicated water was nearby. Crickets were sometimes carried by ninja to cover any small noises they made when sneaking about. But ninja weapons are much, much, cooler than bugs....

                     Shuriken (throwing knives) came in many shapes but were small enough to be hidden 
                     in hand for later delivery to an enemy forehead

Shuriken were commonly carried by ninja. Seemingly nasty enough on their own, ninja would sometimes give them a quick dip in poison for added toxic effect. Poison was an effective away to eliminate one's enemy. Fugu are highly poisonous pufferfish prized in Japan as sushi or sashimi. Ninja would use poison from fugu livers, toads and toxic mushrooms when possible.

Ishikawa Goemon was a notorious ninja who famously hid in the attic above where one of his targets would sleep. He silently lowered a thread until it hung directly above the great samurai General Nobunaga's mouth. Drop by drop he "fed" him poison. Unfortunately for Ishikawa, the General was a light sleeper and awoke before a fatal dose could be adminstered. A similar scene in the James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice is rumoured to have been inspired by Ishikawa's adventure.

Knives and swords popular with both ninja and samurai

 A long sword or "katana", twinned with a "wakizushi" (short sword) were the standard tools of the trade for the elite samurai. Ninja also liked to keep one or both of these handy. Being undercover however, meant that weaponry often had to be small enough to conceal; or of such a nature such that it would not arise suspicion while being carried. Weapons that could also be used as tools for climbing, digging etc were particularly valuable.

"Nekote" ("cats claws") were effective not only for inflicting serious scratches (particlarly when dipped in poison) but could also be helpful when climbing trees or scaling castle walls...

Firebugs would have found success in the ninja profession. Arson was frequently used in attacks on enemy castles and strongholds. Fire crackers and primitive grenade like devices provided a distraction for ninjas infiltrating a well-guarded area. A moment was all most ninjas needed.
                        A Japanese woodblock print shows a ninja up to no good....

Surprisingly, there is very little written historical record of ninja exploits. Perhaps this is partially responsible for the super natural powers sometimes attributed to some ninja. Japanese folk tales and plays tell of ninja who could disappear at will and summon animals and the elements to help in their work.

There is no record of ninja cats in Japanese historical literature. Does that mean they didn't exist? Perhaps they were so skilled; so adept at their work that no one ever figured out it was in fact ninja cats that were doing a lot of the samurai's'd never suspect that cute kitty now, would you? Thats all for now :)