Mar 1, 2012

Cooking With "Umami"

When we eat, we taste four basic tastes, sweet, sour, salt and bitter, but there is actually a fifth taste called umami. So what is umami and where did it come from? The word umami comes from Japan, it means "pleasant savory taste", and was discovered and named by a Japanese scientist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University in 1908. When Dr. Ikeda published his findings, He defined it as a savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, which is a structural element of protein. Unfortunately know one believed him for almost 80 years. It wasn't until the 1980's that various studies proved that umami is actually the fifth primary taste and that each of the twenty kinds of amino acids possesses its own unique taste. The combination of these various tastes is an important element in determining the flavor of foods. They found that umami occurs naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. This fifth taste is subtle and blends well with other tastes to enhance flavors. Umami is used all over the world. In Asia it is found in beans and grain, fermented seafood-based products, shitake mushrooms, kombu and dried seafood. In Western cuisine, there are also fermented or cured products derived from meat and dairy products, like ham and cheese. Basically when foods like fish, beans, grains, etc., are fermented using salt, proteins are broken down into amino acids and a condiment which contains high quantities of glutamate is produced. In Asian countries where white rice, vegetables and fish are the main diet, fermented seasonings like miso, soy sauce and fish sauce are used to flavor their food. These seasonings are umami seasonings. Other umami seasonings that you may be familiar with are anchovy paste, Worcestershire Sauce, tomato products like ketchup, chili sauce, and tomato paste. Foods that are considered high is umami are: Parmesan cheese (one of the most umami-rich foods in the world), tomatoes, soy beans, tuna, shell fish, potatoes, spinach, carrots, celery, shitake mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, green tea, cured meats, beef, pork, chicken, etc. An important discovery was made by one of Dr. Ikeda's disciples, Professor Shintaro Kodama in 1913, that by combining foods that contain umami, you significantly magnify the umami taste. A good example of that is when the great French chef Auguste Escoffier, in the late 1800s, set cuisine afire with his invention of veal stock, and the Italians combined Parmesan cheese with tomato sauce and mushrooms, or the Chinese added leek and cabbage with chicken soup. The Japanese people have been making use of ingredients containing different types of umami in their dashi stock, which is at the heart of many Japanese meals. Stock is the basis of cooking all over the world, and is a good example of the synergistic effect of umami.

Thanks to the Umami Information Center for their informative information needed to write this blog. For more information on umami, plus many delicious recipes, check out their website:

Cooks Note: If you are ever in San Francisco and like Japanese food, check out a restaurant called "Umami", This restaurant has twice been awarded the best Japanese and sushi restaurant in the city and is open 7 days a week. Address: 2909 Webster St., (between Filbert St & Union St), in the Marina/Cow Hollow district. (415) 346-3431,, and make reservations!

Recipes rich in umami:
Umami Spring Rolls
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 two inch piece ginger, grated
2 green onions, sliced into matchstick pieces
1/2 cup thinly sliced Chinese cabbage (Napa cabbage)
6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, cut into thin pieces
1 cup cooked small shrimp
2 cups bean sprouts or radish sprouts or a combination of both
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1/2 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more for deep-frying
1 package spring roll wrappers (thawed if frozen)

Stir-fry Sauce:
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar

Mix stir-fry sauce together and put aside. Place 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium to high heat. Add garlic, ginger, and green onions. Stir-fry until fragrant (about 1 minute). Stir-frying Tip: Add a little water to the wok/pan when it gets too dry instead of more oil. Add cabbage, mushrooms, and shrimp. As you cook, add the stir-fry sauce. Stir-fry 1-2 minutes, until vegetables have softened, do not overcook. Remove from heat and add sprouts, tossing to mix in. Do a taste test for salt, adding 1 tablespoon more fish or soy sauce if not salty enough. 

To assemble rolls, place a spring roll wrapper on a clean working surface. Place one heaping tablespoon of the filling on the wrapper. Tips: Spread the filling lengthwise along the spring roll wrapper nearer the end closest to you. Also, try not to include too much of the liquid left in the bottom of your wok/pan (a slotted spoon works well for this - drier filling is better. Now sprinkle some of the fresh cilantro and basil over the filling. Fold the left and right sides of wrapper over filling, then lift up the wide end nearest you and tuck overtop. Roll to the other end. Secure the roll by dipping your fingers in some water and wetting the end, "pasting" it shut.

To fry spring rolls, place some canola oil (about 1 inch deep) in a wok or deep-sided frying pan over medium-high heat. When bubbles rise, or when the oil begins to form snake-like lines across the bottom of the pan, the oil may be hot enough. To test it, dip one corner of a spring roll into the oil. If it begins to sizzle and cook, the oil is ready. If not, wait another 30 seconds to one minute and try again. Using tongs, place spring rolls in oil, allowing them to fry about 1 minute on each side. Spring rolls are done when they turn light to medium golden-brown. Place on paper towels to drain while you finish frying the rest. Makes about 20-25 spring rolls. Serve spring rolls while still hot with Thai Sweet Chili Sauce or Mae Ploy sweet chilli sauce, or make your own dipping sauce: 

Dipping Sauce:
1 teaspoon Asian chili paste, or 3 fresh red chilies, chopped
1 teaspoon Vietnamese chili garlic sauce
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon vinegar
3 tablespoons fish sauce (nuoc mam)
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients and serve with spring rolls.

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