This news report is reprinted (with slight modifications) from the May 7, 2015 press release issued by the Umami Information Center.
NEW YORK CITY (Business Wire) — Japanese cuisine, which relies heavily on the pure umami soup stock dashi, has been gaining more and more popularity. And along the fame of the Japanese cuisine, umami (pleasant savory taste), the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter, has also been attaining recognition.
The Umami Information Center, an international non-profit organization dedicated to the teaching of umami, organized an Annual Umami Lecture at the Culinary Institute of America (New York City) this past March. It was the third in a series of annual educational workshops with the Culinary Institute. The director of the Umami Information Center, Dr. Kumiko Ninomiya, opened the lecture explaining how amino acids widely present in foods taste sweet, bitter or umami. She made the point that umami is present not only in traditional Japanese ingredients but also in other foods such as onion, asparagus, mushroom, broccoli and cheese, which are common in the Western cuisine.
Scientifically, umami is the taste of glutamate, the most abundant amino acid in nature; when inosinate and guanylate that are primarily found in meat, fish, and dried mushrooms accompany glutamate, umami is strongly enhanced and their combination makes food taste deeper and well balanced. “It could be beneficial for your health too,” Dr. Ninomiya stated, “because it could replace salt.”
Chef Takuji Takahashi from the long-established Japanese restaurant in Kyoto “Kinobu” educated the audience about the essential difference between Japanese and Western cuisine. He explained that the subtle taste of the Japanese soup stock dashi corresponds to a pure extraction of umami components glutamate and inosinate. This umami in dashi brings out the natural flavors of foods, whereas the more dominant taste of the chicken soup stock is the result of a complex amino acid mixture with the aroma of chicken. Although delicious, chicken soup stock fuses into foods masking their original flavors. In collaboration with another Kyoto chef, Soichiro Hidari from “Tatsumiya,” Chef Takahashi let students experience these contrasts by tasting turnip that had been prepared in either bouillon or dashi.
New Generation of Umami Experts is Emerging
The focus of the final presenter, Ali Bouzari, co-founder of Pilot R+D in Northern California, was on how to make umami stronger. Fermentation is one of the culinary techniques that create high levels of umami. He let students taste shallot and garlic misozuke (pickled in miso: Japanese fermenting soybeans). In this case, miso added umami to garlic and shallots. His surprise invention was a sauce he named “Nuka Beurre Blanc” made from nuka (rice bran). Nuka is fermented with salt and water, in which vegetables are pickled. Even though Japanese never eat “nuka” itself, Ali mixed it with cultured butter to make a super concentrated savory umami sauce, which wowed the entire audience. The fermentation of vegetables in the rice bran over time had increased the umami of “nuka” extraordinarily. It was a moment to realize that a new generation of umami experts is emerging in the U.S.
The response from the Culinary Institute students was very positive. One commented, “It’s exciting to learn that umami could be pursued not only in traditional Japanese cuisine but also in many different recipes such as fusion cuisine.” Another student said she’s willing to utilize MSG, umami seasoning, to explore new recipes.
“Compared to the first lecture three years ago,” Dr. Ninomiya noted, “it is impressive that students are having such a deeper understanding about umami and MSG.”
Read more information about the 2015 Annual Umami Lecture at the Culinary Institute of America, as reported in The New Yorker magazine.