World-Renowned Umami Specialists Teach Elite Culinary Students About its Relevance in Cooking

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UmamiUmami is a key ingredient for making every dish more savory and delicious. Students who attended the lecture learned that umami is the fifth basic taste, exemplified in the rich taste of chicken broth, tomatoes, or cheese that leave a lasting sensation on the tongue. One of the components responsible for umami taste is the isolated amino acid glutamate. Together with nucleotides such as inosinate and guanilate, glutamate intensifies and harmonizes other flavors while enhancing the complexity of a dish.

As the third generation owner of the century-old, three-Michelin star kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi in Kyoto, world-class Chef Murata has dedicated his life to teaching the foundations of Japanese cuisine. His message at the packed lecture hall of the Culinary Institute of America was that Japanese cooking aims for balance, and there is nothing better to achieve this balance than dashi, soup stock with the clearest umami taste.

About one hundred thirty students attended this exceptional umami lecture sponsored by the Umami Information Center to learn the science of umami taste with Dr. Kumiko Ninomiya, the director of the UIC, and to learn the technique of dashi making in Japanese cuisine with the venerated Yoshihiro Murata. Chef Murata explained that chefs in Kikunoi use dashi in all forms of cooking. Dashi is a pure mixture of umami compounds: glutamate from kombu and inosinate of the dehydrated and fermented bonito flakes. This pure and clear umami taste in dashi draws out the original flavors of ingredients without overdoing it. But umami is not exclusive to Japanese cooking; umami is universal. Kyle Connaughton, lecturer at the Culinary Institute and best known for his former role as a head chef of research and development at the three-Michelin star restaurant The Fat Duck, demonstrated umami taste within the context of American cooking. He explained how the technique of fermentation often used in Japanese cuisine highlights umami taste. The spread of this knowledge has created a new trend among renowned American chefs such as David Chang’s fermented chickpea paste inspired by traditional Japanese miso.

Students sampled a cherry tomato and were then asked to describe the lingering umami taste. The Sophomore Santana Burris described it as “a savory taste that sort of coats the mouth and throat.” Students also tasted a number of clear broths. Using a mild vegetable soup with a very low salt content, Dr. Ninomiya demonstrated that a small quantity of the umami seasoning, monosodium glutamate is able to intensify the saltiness with a very low final impact on total sodium, one of the health benefits of umami compounds. Umami makes low salt foods tastier. Another property of umami that the Japanese cuisine has mastered is its complex and somewhat mysterious effect on blending and harmonizing all other flavors. This allows for a rich and satisfying taste without having to rely on fats or oils like other cuisines do. This way, a kaiseki-style bento box from the restaurant Kikunoi that includes 46 different ingredients simmered or marinated in dashi only has 450 kcal and still presents all the delicate tastes of seasonal ingredients.

Understanding the basic concept of dashi without fat and using clear umami taste, Chef Connaughton proved that is possible to obtain a dashi-like stock with fat-free chicken broth, morel mushrooms, and dried tomato to garnish orecchiette pasta accompanied by tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, creating an umami bomb.

posted by: Eric Fujimori
7/29/14