In Japan, homemade miso soup has the most umami (photo by fto mizno)
The first time I heard about umami, I had started working in a run down sushi shop on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco. I learned how to steam Japanese rice and season it with the appropriate balance of sweetness and sourness. I cleaned and gutted small fish as I was not to be trusted yet to cut the more expensive fish. The head chef also took the time to explain how to make the staple miso soup. The most important part of the process was to dissolve the light brown miso paste in dashi Japanese fish stock. When I inquired to why I needed to add this mild tasting fish broth to the soup, the chef gave me one word: umami. Instead of trying to describe the elusive taste, he poured some of the soup he had just made in one cup. Then, he mixed a bit of miso paste with some hot water. I tried the soup with no broth first and then tried the umami rich miso diluted in broth. They both tasted exactly the same to me. Six years later, I sat at a sushi bar in Montreal on a cold winter night, a perfect night for a miso soup. However, the soup I was served was off. It had no umami. Over the course of a few years, I had discovered a new taste anchored in Japanese culture.
- Umami a Japanese taste
Umami is compound of the word umai which means “delicious” in Japanese and mi which means “taste”. In Japan, umami is associated with a delicious taste that gives depth to soups and broths. While certain ingredients, like dried kelp, are said to be rich in umami, traditional techniques bring umami out in food. A Japanese chef once told me that thick cut sashimi fish gave a more intense umami taste to every bite. The flavor of dashi, the fish broth that constitutes the basis for Japanese cuisine, is tied to this taste central to Japanese cuisine. An essential element of dashi is dried fish shavings called katsuo bushi. An essential step in making this product is to let mold grow on the dried fish. The mold further desiccates the fish making it hard as wood and of course giving it extra umami.
Early scientific investigation identified glutamate molecules as the source of umami. In 2009, a team of researchers identified specific taste receptor for glutamates. Today, umami is broadly considered the fifth primary taste together with salty, sweet, bitter and sour.
- Umami uncovered
In order to better understand umami, it is important to look at its discovery. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist trained in Germany discovered umami in 1908. Ikeda sought to improve Japanese nutrition of his modernizing nation using western science. The story goes that Ikeda set up to discover a fifth taste unique to Japanese cuisine that would make industrial food more palatable. You can watch a dramatic account of its discovery here. Thus, was born the refined version of glutamate: MSG. Ikeda, an ambitious entrepreneur, patented his discovery and sold it under the product name ajinomoto. Over the course of three decades, Ajinomoto, which loosely translates as the essence of taste, became a MSG producing empire spreading its product through out Japan, Asia and the world. In the 1970s, the company suffering from considerable bad press decided to distance itself from chemical additives rebranded themselves as umami seasoning. The Ajinomoto Corporation today promotes much of the research and education on umami worldwide.
- Umami’s success abroad
Ajinomoto’s research and promotion reverberated outside Japan as numerous chefs and scientists became interested in understanding and harnessing the power of umami. A new breed of gastro scientists with one foot in the kitchen and the other in the lab embraced the concept. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal extensively wrote about it and experimented with it in its menus. Kenji Lopez-Alt, scientist turned cook and author of the “Food Lab” cooking reference, crafts recipes that are rich in umami. Chef and entrepreneur David Chang went as far as developing fermented miso paste to produce local “New York Umami.” Umami has become more than a Japanese taste, it is a global phenomenon.
The success of umami outside of Japan is due in big part to the fact that it is backed by science. Umami has permeated the Western gastronomic scene with chefs combining ingredients to capitalize on the power of glutamates. So why not use MSG? Although most chefs refuse to take short cuts opting to create umami themselves, awareness of umami has resulted in the rehabilitation of MSG with recent waves of viral articles here and here.
- Umami’s new meaning
Umami started as a means to make bland food more palatable but thanks to the efforts of a company to rebrand itself, it has become much more. A quick search for umami on the Internet will yield a beautifully crafted website that gives an in-depth look at the fifth taste. The website, funded by the company Ajinomoto, aims to legitimize umami through science and culture. However, umami has become much more than a corporation pet project. In Japan, umami is a symbol of traditional culture and has been used for various, sometimes conflicting agendas. It is a cultural resource that can add value as much to a dish than to the Japanese culture. It is a form of cultural nationalism where umami can only be understood by the Japanese palate. It is a mark of deliciousness that stands for tradition and community. As umami, travels across boundaries, it transforms becoming something different. For gastro-scientists, umami is not only delicious, it is a way to set one’s cooking apart in an environment where innovation is a matter of survival. Umami might have been created for a purpose, but today, it is as real as any of the other primary tastes. Next time you try a miso soup, ask yourself the question: can you taste umami?