Umami, the fifth taste, is found at the cornerstone of almost every cuisine. The Italians have Parmesan, the Brits dry-aged beef, the US ketchup, the Chinese soy sauce, while here in Oz it’s vegemite that offers us that distinctive meaty, savoury deliciousness.
If you haven’t heard of umami before don’t be alarmed, when I was at school I, too, was taught that flavour was painted with only four brushstrokes. In fact, despite centuries of use, it wasn’t until 2001 that four became five and umami was officially added to the culinary registrar alongside sweet, salt, bitter and sour.
This was not for lack of trying. At the turn of last century a chef and a chemist, each on different sides of the world, worked to harness and celebrate a taste they believed crucial to creating delicious food.
Escoffier wrote a book that was to become the bible of French cuisine. In it he espoused the virtues of a well-made stock, the Frenchie umami. He was fastidious in his method, the browning of the bones, the long slow cooking, both crucial steps to coaxing umami from meat.
On the other side of the globe Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda was connecting the dots between high levels of glutamate, an amino acid found in kombu seaweed, and the savoury deliciousness that was extracted when making dashi stock. He noted this taste also existed in other, predominantly aged, foods and that it was distinctly different to the other four tastes. It enhanced the salt and sweet, calmed the sour and bitter and most importantly added a delicious taste all of its own. He named it umami from the Japanese word umai, meaning yummy.
If Escoffier’s legacy was a book, Ikeda’s was a powder. By coupling the glutamate with a second element Ikeda found another way to lure the umami out. Monosodium glutamate or MSG, became the most (in)famous of all seaweed by-products. Ikeda patented it in 1915 and sold it to the world. Sadly this product did more damage than good to the misunderstood amino acid, which for decades became synonymous with the controversial flavour enhancer rather than the bearer of balance and deliciousness.
When, in 2001, scientists finally demonstrated conclusively that humans and other animals have specific taste receptors to umami, the dust had somewhat settled on the MSG debate.
As fate would have it, this coincided with chefs around the globe looking for ways to lighten their food. They were turning away from the traditional French stocks and sauces but still seeking a way to incorporate the elusive umami into their dishes. Their attention has landed on seaweed. I suggest yours should too.
So how can you umami?
Seaweed varieties are categorised into three key groups: green or blue-green seaweeds such as aonori and the easily foraged sea lettuce; brown seaweeds including kombu and wakame (think seaweed salads and miso soup); and red, including nori or laver (used to wrap sushi), carrageen and dulse.
Also known as sea vegetables, most edible seaweeds are marine algae (and conversely most freshwater algae are toxic). Floating in an oceanic bath of minerals, seaweeds are nutritionally impressive: they contain protein, minerals, trace elements and vitamins. Their other culinary properties see them found on the molecular shelf in the form of alginate, agar and carrageenan (vegetarian alternatives to gelatin).
Importantly, compared to many other treasures of the ocean, seaweed is a sustainable crop, rapidly renewable and easily preserved. Many seaweeds are only available processed, dried and compressed into sheets. This makes for easy storage and longevity, two friends to the home cook. Follow instructions to rehydrate before use.
Seaweed loves: bonito flakes, shiitake mushrooms, butter, seafood, potatoes, onions, soy sauce, miso, eggs, ginger, pork.
Dashi is one of the most important components of Japanese food and the combination of bonito flakes and kumbo make it the ultimate umami bomb. Measure 1.8 litres of water (this measure is known as a sho and is the same as a sake bottle). Add 10 pieces of kombu (about 8cm pieces) to the pot and leave to soak for 1½ hours. Slowly heat the water to just below boiling (small bubbles will appear) then remove the kombu from the water. Turn off the heat and add one big handful of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) to the pot, lightly prod the flakes, skimming off any scum as it forms. Wait until the flakes sink to the bottom of the pan (around 4-5 minutes) then strain through clean cotton cloth.
To make miso soup rinse 2 tablespoons of wakame seaweed in cold water, drain and leave in the fridge giving it some time to re-hydrate. Cut tofu into little squares and slice scallions into thin slices. Heat the dashi (if not still hot from just making it). Incorporate the miso paste in the dashi stock by pushing through a sieve to avoid lumps. Work with 1 tablespoon for every 200ml of stock. Don’t boil the dashi once the miso is added. Distribute all the ingredients in soup bowls and pour stock over the top.