The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Umami

Umami

In the News

December 26, 2010

Guest Columnist, Elizabeth Andoh

There is a new buzzword going about in American foodservice circles: umami. Difficult to translate, some people refer to it as the fifth (or sixth) flavor; others say it’s the perception of “tastiness.” Food scientists point out that umami seibun (umami as a quantifiable substance) is glutamic acid. Indeed it was a Japanese scientist, Mr. Kikunae Ikeda, who in the early years of the 20th century first recognized the flavor-enhancing potential in kombu (kelp) broth and applied that knowledge to invent a commercial product called Aji no Moto – better known as crystalline MSG in the U.S. Foodstuffs that are high in naturally occurring glutamates have become the focus of intense interest in the past few years. The subject of umami was explored in depth at the 13th Annual World of Flavors International Conference & Festival – JAPAN: FLAVORS OF CULTURE – held at The Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in Napa Valley, November 4-6, 2010.

Greystone’s Japan: Flavors of Culture was the largest, most significant educational gathering of its kind held in North America. More than 60 top chefs, culinary educators, Japan experts and food industry leaders presented a comprehensive view of contemporary and traditional Japanese cuisine. Attendees were eager to discover how Japanese ingredients and techniques could be adapted to American kitchens. The ability to leverage flavor by preparing stocks properly – unlocking their full umamipotential – was the focus of several demonstration-tastings. 

The term umami hails from Japan where the use of flavor-boosting ingredients such as kombu and flavor-enhancing techniques such as shimo furi (brief blanching that poetically translates to “frosting”) has been practiced for more than a thousand years. At the conference, classic Japanese sea stock made from kombu and katsuo bushi (smoky dried bonito flakes) was demonstrated by Naoyuki Yanagihara, chef-instructor at the Yanagihara School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine in Tokyo. Three-Michelin-star chef Kunio Tokuoka, third generation owner of Kyoto Kitcho (a kaisekirestaurant), demonstrated the making of an intensely savory, clear chicken wing broth using the shimo furi technique. 

The key to extracting kombu’s full flavor potential in cooking is to let it soak for 20 minutes (or longer) in room temperature water before gently applying heat. For optimal flavor and clarity, kombu broth is never allowed to boil. Classic Japanese sea stock scatters katsuo bushi over the warm kelp broth allowing the flakes to sink slowly before straining the stock. Whether adding smoky fish flakes (think of them as the “bacon bits of the sea”), or keeping the broth simply vegan (just kelp), the stock can be used warm immediately, or cooled and stored for several days in a glass jar in the refrigerator. Delicate sea stocks such as these do not freeze well. 

An extraordinarily rich, deeply flavored stock can be extracted from fish (heads and/or collarbones), meat or poultry (flesh-on-the-bone, such as meaty chicken wings), and subjected to shimo furi “frosting.” This time-honored technique briefly “rinses” the fish, meat or poultry in boiling water to remove surface impurities and unwanted oils. With this blanching, the surface turns white, as though it were frosted (hence the name). The frosting creates an outer barrier that seals in flavor until the time comes to release it slowly to the stockpot. The briefly blanched fish, meat or poultry is then rinsed a second time in ice water (rubbing it gently to loosen fish scales or bits of sinew or coagulated blood) before being placed in a pot with kombu and fresh (room temperature) water. Placed over gentle heat, the liquid in the pot is slowly simmered, coaxing flavor out into the broth. The naturally occurring glutamates in kombuenhance the meaty flavors exponentially, creating an intense essence.

Both of these classic Japanese broths – the smoky, sweet and savory bonito-infuseddashi and the subtle but deeply flavored chicken-enriched stock – made a lasting impression on those who sampled them at the World of Flavors conference. The power of kombu to awaken and deepen flavor, and to create umami-rich cuisine, was evident – and much appreciated. Here’s hoping that more food industry professionals, and consumers, will continue to explore the umami potential.


Elizabeth Andoh, an American writer and lecturer who specializes in Japanese food and culture, received her formal culinary training from the Yanagihara School of Traditional Japanese Cuisine in Tokyo, Japan. Her cookbook KANSHA: Celebrating Japan's Vegan & Vegetarian Traditions (Ten Speed Press), was just released to great acclaim. Visit her website at http://www.kanshacooking.com/.