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Umami – Why Japan’s Cuisine Will Capture You

by Dominic Carter
CEO, CarterJMRN K.K.

Sour, sweet, salty and bitter – these are what we all learned in school were the four tastes. If you were really paying attention,
you may remember specifically which part of the tongue picks up which taste (although I never quite agreed in real life that I could
only taste sour on the sides of my tongue, or sweet on the front). It was only around 10 years ago, while working on a consumer research
project for a client that creates flavours, that I started to hear about a new taste called umami.

These days, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard about it – it’s the trendy taste. Umami is, in fact, not a new concept for Japanese, having been “discovered” in traditional Japanese dashi (stock) and identified as coming from glutamic acid by a scientist over a hundred years ago. That clever man, a certain Professor Kikunai Ikeda went on to patent a salt of glutamate he called monosodium glutamate – yes – MSG. The company that went on to commercialise his discovery thrives today and is named after its most famous product, MSG, which they call Aji-no-moto (“the origin of taste”).

After hearing this taste revelation, I started to think about it every time I had a meal – is this food umami? In my racier and more erudite moments I might even bring up the subject with my dining partners – “Olivia, can you taste the umami in this tomato?” (Olivia being pretty sure she could if she closed her eyes). How umami tastes is hard to describe, but it is closest to matching what we may describe as savouriness – an enveloping, satisfying richness that coats the tongue and fills the soul.

From the outside looking in, when you think of Japanese food, it’s easy to think of it as bland and unsatisfying, using so little fat and sugar as it does. At best, you can feel good about eating it because it’s “good for you”. After all, fat and sugar is where it’s at when it comes to producing taste and making life worth living, right? One of the things that I think makes Japanese food so special is that Japanese have a skill of creating deliciousness that doesn’t rely on sugar or fat. In the same way that butter is often seen to be the “yum” basis of French cooking, dashi plays that role in Japanese cooking.

There are two types of dashi: katsuo (made from dried bonito fish) and konbu (made from a certain type of seaweed). Every Japanese
homemaker would make her own stock in years past, embuing it with her own slightly unique flavour – truly the flavour of home for
generations of Japanese children. In recent years, many are lamenting the loss of the dashi making skills in the younger generation (but
then again how many French make their own butter these days?).

When you start becoming aware of these two master stocks in Japanese cooking you will start to taste them everywhere, and realise the
contribution they are making to that overall yummy “Japanesey” flavour. For example, even the basic curry udon noodles that you buy at
the convenience store have the distinct accent of katsuo dashi in them. This article is too short to discuss the myriad ways that katsuo and konbu work (and work together) in the universe of Japanese cooking, but suffice it to say that they are one of the key carriers of the umami that makes a lot of the supposedly plain Japanese cooking so delicious.

One final note: I recently discovered that sushi isn’t really meant to be eaten totally fresh. The reason is that when it decomposes a bit, it creates… yes – you got it – umami! When you think of the role that fermented fish sauce plays in Thai cooking as an imparter of umami, you can kind of get why it’s worth leaving your sushi lying around for a while. One more reason to celebrate the skills of the true sushi master and the general brilliance of Japanese food!

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