Umami – What Is It?
Post by Oki-Nami, Japanese Restaurant, New Road – September 2015
We’ve all heard it before. Or seen the face of a grinning celebrity chef tasting from a suitably trendy ethnic dish made by the natives and declaring; “Mmmm. Umami.”
And we kind of think we know what they’re talking about, what does Umami mean exactly?
In 1908 Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikede was performing a study on the complex flavours of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. He argued that the flavours of these foods had a quality that could not easily be defined as sweet, sour, salty or bitter. He named this quality “delicious savoury taste” or, “Umami”.
He noted that Umami has a mild, long lasting aftertaste that induces salivation and stimulates the throat. By itself Umami is not palatable but combined with certain foods and just the right salt content it produces an enormously pleasant effect.
Scientists agreed that Umami to be distinctly different from salty.
By isolating the components of Umami, Ikeda was able to produce a pure Umami seasoning on an industrial scale. This would become the now notorious Monosodium glutamate, or MSG. That powdered wonder seeming fabricated in some backstreet laboratory. Part deliciousness, part concoction of death and fatness.
MSG – Good Or Bad?
It is believed that our recoiling at the mere mention of MSG is part of a western mindset. A mindset born from the discredited conspiracy theory regarding CRS (Chinese Restaurant Syndrome). This is the one where people experienced headaches and intestinal upsets after visiting Chinese Restaurants and takeaways. MSG took the blame.
A 1995 report by the FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) did a report for the FDA concluded that MSG was perfectly safe.
But wait a minute. This does not mean you have to start hosing your recipes down with MSG to achieve Umami. Far from it. There are many common ingredients that are naturally rich in Umami. Fish, seafood, cured meats, mushrooms, vegetables, green tea and fermented products. Want to add a little extra Umami for taste? Bonito flakes and nori (dried seaweed) is all you need.
Combining two or more Umami rich food will do just as much as a whole load of MSG. In fact high-end restaurants do just this and label their creations Umami Bombs.
At Oki-Nami we serve a number of so-called Umami Bombs.
Try our mixed tempura, combining seasonal vegetable, king prawn and squid; any of our Muso Maki dishes, inside out rolls stuffed with seafood and/or vegetables and sesame; Kaisen Gyoza (Salmon & Shitake dumplings);
Our Teriyakis, rich with Soy and meat, fish or tofu; or, perhaps, Noodle dishes in soy and miso broth… I could go on. In fact any given visit to Oki-Nami will provide you with a tour of what Umami is more than any amount of words can say.
Want To Find Out More?
What to know more about Umami, it’s history and utilization? How about checking out the book Umami The World by the Umami Information Centre ISBN 1-897701-23-3 £2.99 available at Oki-Nami.