That Mysterious Flavor
Wrapping up our tour of the basic flavor sensations is that relatively new taste known as umami.
Though the term umami was first proposed by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, it has only been widely
recognized for the past 30 or so years. But what is umami? We all can easily describe its four
siblings, sweet, salty, bitter and sour but how do you describe umami? It’s most commonly
described as a “savory” flavor, sometimes as a “brothy” or “meaty” flavor. And though we usually
associate umami with monosodium glutamate, the ribonucleotides guanosine and inosine
monophosphate also give foods that umami character.
Where Does Umami Reside?
For starters, there are receptors on the tongue that detect the acid end of the glutamate
molecule but your tongue specifically needs the salt form of glutamic acid. Plain glutamic acid
just won’t do and doesn’t give the same flavor perception as glutamate as in monosodium
glutamate. Do we also have ribonucleotide receptors on the tongue? Not exactly but what
guanosine and inosine does is it “turbocharges” glutamate. Combine the ribonucleotides with
glutamate 1 plus 1 plus 1 now equals 10!
But other than the Aji-no-moto bottle, where do I find umami? One of the first discoveries
that Dr. Ikeda made was that konbu was high in glutamate residue. Since that first discovery, it
is now known that glutamates are also naturally found in meats and vegetables with naturally
occurring inosine occurring in meats and guanosine in vegetables. All three are found in fish,
shellfish, mushrooms and vegetables. They also are found in fermented and aged products like
shoyu, cheeses and cured meats.
Starting to Make Sense?
Now do you see why that Caesar Salad tastes so good? I mean simply plating Romaine lettuce
with a dressing of egg yolk emulsified lemon juice and olive oil can’t be that delicious, can it?
Or is it because of the umami from the anchovies (very high in umami) and Parmesan cheese
(also very high in umami)? Or that simple bowl of ramen that you crave? I mean, ramen at its
simplest is just noodles in broth but when that broth is made from umami rich konbu, bonito
and niboshi with a hit of shoyu…
The key is using umami fortified ingredients to simply enhance the flavor of the whole dish, not
trying to overwhelm the dish with one flavor. Again, think of glutamates, inosinates and
guanylates as “turbocharging” the flavors. Like any turbocharged vehicle, if you push the
throttle too much you’ll end up crashing. So simply use your ingredient “turbochargers” to
enhance but not crash your dish. If you’ve added anchovies to the point where all diners taste is
salty, fishy flavors then you’ve crashed. Or shoyu to the point where all you taste is salt, again
But I’m Allergic to MSG
What most people refer to as an MSG allergy is mostly a hypersensitivity to MSG. True allergies
manifest as mild to severe rashes or swollen body parts, usually the oral mucus membranes or
breathing passages. However, since glutamic acid is a neurotransmitter that’s also active in the
brain, hypersensitivity to these effects or simply just consuming too much MSG can cause
unwanted side effects. Like I once experienced many moons ago… though being in the sciences,
I thought it was kinda cool… in hindsight.
While working part time at the East West Center as an undergraduate at the University of
Hawaii, I routinely ordered lunch take-out with the other student employees. One of their
favorite take-out joints was a local Chinese restaurant. So I ordered the Pork Fried Rice. It was
so good that I consumed the whole take-out container. And while consuming it, I kept
wondering why it tasted so good. After all, it was simply rice, bits of chopped char siu, green
onions and bits of scrambled egg. Then about 15 minutes after I finished the container, the “side
effects” started. I constantly detected movement just at the periphery of my vision – even if no
one or nothing was actually moving. I also thought I heard sounds and words even before they
were spoken. And I did develop a mild headache. Needless to say, I never ordered take-out from
that same restaurant again.
This simple soup combines umami from konbu and bonito flakes in the dashi along with umami
from the shiitake and enoki mushrooms and the shoyu. And since the only added salt is from
the shoyu and scallop liquid, it’s actually a healthy alternative to canned soups.
8 cups water
1 2 ounce package dried dashi konbu
1 ounce or 30gm shaved bonito flakes
1 can (about 4oz) boiled scallops
2 tbsp shoyu
About 2/3 cup sliced dried shiitake rehydrated in hot water
1 large bunch fresh mizuna chopped to 2 inch portions
1 medium daikon, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions
2 packages enoki mushrooms chopped to 2 inch portions
3 medium carrots, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions
1 long piece of gobo, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions
1 medium piece hasu, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions
Bring the water to a boil, remove from heat then “steep” the dashi konbu and bonito flakes for
about 10 minutes until a fragrant stock is produced. Drain the stock removing the konbu and
bonito reserving the clear stock. Add the boiled scallops with the liquor and the shoyu and heat
to a gentle simmer. Though the scallops usually start breaking apart on their own, I facilitate
the process so that only individual “strands” of scallop remain. Add the water used to soak the
shiitake being careful not to add the grit that falls to the bottom. Add everything else to the
stock except the mizuna and simmer until the gobo and hasu are tender then add the mizuna
and continue simmering until the mizuna is tender.
If this recipe looks a lot like a traditional New Year’s Day staple, it is my personal recipe for
ozoni minus the mochi. So if you want to add the mochi, go ahead. There’s no law stating that
ozoni can only be consumed on the 1st of January. Or swap out the mochi for somen, udon or
soba noodles. The umami will still be there.
So experiment using naturally occurring flavor enhancers like shoyu, konbu and cheeses in non-
traditional ways. Like using shoyu in desserts or konbu dashi in stews and sauces. I personally am
still trying to incorporate Parmesan cheese in a dessert – I haven’t perfected anything yet but in
cooking, the journey is just as rewarding as the final destination.