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Western Chefs Embrace Umami, the “5th Flavor”

April 07, 2009 07:30 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The popularity of Umami is growing worldwide among chefs who think its meaty, savory taste helps enhance the flavor of their own dishes.

Fifth Flavor Adds Unique Taste to Dishes

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Umami, a meaty, savory flavor, has been used in Japanese cooking for over a century, but in the past decade the “fifth flavor” has become increasingly common in Western cooking. The flavor is found in traditional Asian ingredients such as fish sauce, soy sauce and seaweed, but also in Western foods such as chicken soup, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce and mushrooms.

French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of many chefs putting “umami bombs” on his menu, which The Wall Street Journal describes as, “dishes that pile on ingredients naturally rich in umami for an explosive taste.”

Umami is also being used more subtly; Vongerichten and other chefs have become fond of using kelp and bonito dashi—a stock rich with umami flavor—to bring out the flavor of dishes. “It imparts that savoriness in anything it touches, even in small, negligible amounts,” said chef David Kinch to The New York Times.

Chefs in the west looking to make the most of the flavor have turned to Japanese chefs for help; in a series of umami “summits,” Japanese chefs explain the science of umami and teach Western chefs how to incorporate the flavor in their cooking.
“It is possible to increase the umami level in a dish simply by adding bitterness, aroma and texture,” explained Kunio Tokuoka, head chef of Kyoto’s Kitcho Arashiyama, at a London summit. “Umami is not just about deliciousness. It's a complex thing and you have to find your own way of increasing it.”

The understanding of umami can not only help chefs create delicious and unique dishes, but also healthier dishes. Use of umami-rich ingredients allows chefs to lower the sodium and fat content of food without sacrificing taste.

English chef Sat Bains told the Times of London, “I use less salt now and my flavours are much cleaner,” while Tokuoka said, “By increasing umami in food you can reduce the amount of cream, butter and oil.”

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Background: Discovery of umami

Though the original four flavors of sweet, salt, sour, and bitter were identified in ancient Greece, umami (pronounced oo-mah-mee) was not officially recognized until 1908, though it had been used for centuries in Japanese cooking. In the late 19th century, Parisian chef Auguste Escoffier also used it with veal stock that gave his dishes a rich umami flavor.

Umami, which means “delicious” in Japanese, was first identified by professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo University in 1908. Ikeda discovered that the flavor was found in glutamic acid and developed a process to create monosodium glutamate, known as MSG, which adds umami flavor to food.

Many doubted Ikeda's findings, but science has proven him correct in the last decade. In 2000, researchers at the University of Miami School of Medicine identified a taste receptor for umami.

“This is a milestone,” said Ding Ming of Novartis Consumer Health. “If you know the receptor, and you know how to manipulate the receptor, you can make food taste better.”

Reference: International Glutamate Information Service; umami quiz

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