Umami, The Essence of Taste
In recent years, umami had been officially recognized as the fifth basic taste besides sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The closest words to describe umami would be ‘savouriness’, ‘meatiness’ or even ‘deliciousness’. You’ll know it. It’s that full, well-rounded tasty sensation that leaves your palate feeling satisfied when you savour something umami.
The importance of umami cannot be underrated. In fact it commands such significance in the culinary arts that the Chinese call it “wei jing”, or the essence of taste. So what is umami and why is it so important to gastronomy?
Umami, The Discovery
Dashi is said to be the secret in Japanese cooking. The two main ingredients in making dashi stock is kombu (dried sea kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes).
A century ago, in 1908, a Professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered a unique taste in kombu that is unlike any of the four basic taste. He did an analysis and identified that the amino acid, ‘glutamate’ in the kombu act as a flavour enhancer. In fact, dried kombu contain the highest level of naturally occurring glutamate, more so than any other foodstuffs in the world.
In later years, discoveries of the compounds, ‘inosinate’ and ‘guanylate’ completed the umami trinity. It should be of no surprise to you that very high levels of inosinate were found in katsuobushi; it tend to be more prevalent in meat and fish products.
Guanylate which is found in mushrooms, truffles, and at especially high levels in dried shiitake mushroom is the third main component in umami. Together, these three form up the most important substances in umami.
On its own, glutamate’s effect on umami is subtle. But when combined with inosinate or guanylate, their synergy is magnified dramatically so that the sum is greater than its parts. In this case, 1+1 will not be equal to 2, but more like 1+1=8.
Umami in Food
Long before umami was discovered, people had been utilising umami-rich products in their cooking. They didn’t know anything about glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate; but they sure knew certain food tasted so damn good together.
All over the world, people from different regions and cultures have their own secret weapon to provide that umami hit in their cuisines. In the west, traditional ingredients that are rich in umami includes bacon and ham, cheeses, tomato ketchup, salted anchovy, sauerkraut, etc. Nearer to the east, we have got soy sauce and fermented soybean products like dou ban jiang and miso, nam pla (Thai fish sauce), belacan (prawn paste), katsuobushi, and of course, kombu.
Besides sweetness, umami is one of the five flavours humans crave. Our body are wired to crave sweetness as it provides energy. Likewise, the savoriness of umami is screaming for your attention. Our palate love umami because it’s telling us that it’s good stuffs; it’s meat and protein for body growth and repair.
In today’s society, our intake of salt is naturally high due to the wide availability of convenience and fast food. By now, no one need to tell you that prolonged consumption of high-sodium food will lead to health problems in later years.
Eating is an enjoyment and salt lifts up flavours. When salt is cut down, food will be downright bland, unappetizing indeed. How do we enjoy eating then?
That is not to say we can’t have tasty food, the answer lies in umami. Studies have shown that even when salt is reduced, but if umami is increased, food will be just as tasty. Umami can partly replace salt and be just as healthy and satisfying. I call it culinary magic.
Umami, My Dashi Recipe
Western and Chinese stocks exploit the power of umami. The long, slow flavour extraction of meat, bones, and vegetables result in a stock that is rich, savoury, full-flavoured, and undoubtedly, umami. However, these stocks also tend to be more complex due to the extraction of other amino acids and flavours.
On the other hand, dashi can be said to be the essence of umami. The making of dashi is carefully engineered to just extract the umami substances from the kombu and katsuobushi without extracting much of the other flavours and impurities. The result is a dashi that contains low levels of other tastes but very high levels of glutamate and umami substances.
Making dashi stock may seem easy with so few ingredients and steps. But do not belittle it. The preparation time may be short but the amount of time and effort taken to harvest, prepare and dry the sea kelp and bonito flakes is a lot. Dashi is the heart in Japanese cooking; it is used as the base for the ever popular miso soup, noodles broth, as a poaching liquid and even in sauces.
2 litres water
15g dried kombu (dried sea kelp)
40g katsuobushi (shavings of dried bonito)
You may see some white powdery substances on the kombu. Do not wash it off; these are the good stuffs that contribute to the umami flavor in the stock. If the kombu is dirty, just wipe it gently with a damp cloth.
Add the kombu into the water and slowly heat up to 60°C and maintain at that temperature for an hour. 60°C is the ideal temperature to extract the glutamic acid or ‘savouriness’ from the kombu.
Remove the kombu after an hour, and increase the heat to 80°C. Add in the katsuobushi, and wait for 20 seconds and then strain the stock through a fine strainer lined with coffee filter. Do not infuse the katsuobushi for too long, otherwise bitterness and impurities will also be extracted and the stock will be tainted and overpowered with smokiness. It is now ready for use.
Start today and make your food more delicious by incorporating umami into it.