Regular or chicken salt? It's all a matter of umami. Photo: Melanie Dove
"You want normal or chicken salt with that?'' We've all been there, Friday night after a long week, with no food at home so you pop into a takeaway and order minimum chips, a battered sav and a couple of scallops and wonder why your crumbed mollusc is a slice of potato covered in batter.
What is chicken salt, anyway, and why does it go so well with deep-fried food? Researching this question - and a big shout out to all my fellow research scientists out there, love your work - I found little on the topic in the, oh, three minutes I dedicated to this on Google. But it seems that chicken salt may or may not contain chicken (weird), but is generally a combination of chicken flavouring, herbs and spices and monosodium glutamate.
Bang. There's your reason why sprinkling chicken salt over deep-fried food makes it taste better. MSG, the fifth taste, or umami, as it is known outside the takeaway food industry. We crave umami, which makes your mouth water, apparently.
Turning Japanese ... Bryan Martin's udon and dashi broth with soft egg. Dashi is made from dried seaweed and fish. Photo: David Reist
Even our first food, that of the boob, is umami rich. And glutamates are involved in memory and learning, which is possibly the reason we remember good food but can't recall important anniversaries.
Combining foods rich in umami gives a heightened impression of flavour, which in the Western diet is expressed nowhere better than in the ragu used in spag bol. Here, you get the interactions of at least three umami-laden ingredients: tomato, mushroom and parmesan cheese. There are basically two different types of amino acids that are the source of most umami compounds: specific glutamates and ribonucleotides, so when you have more than one ingredient rich in umami you are more likely to get a larger impression of flavour.
Escoffier knew there was something afoot when he started making his heavily reduced veal stocks. There was more happening than just a concentration of flavour, with an increased richness and a different impression in the mouth - not salt or sweetness, nor bitter or acid, but something entirely different. Meat stocks have since been the basis of most French cooking and yet Escoffier is known mostly for inventing the peach melba.
Nowhere does the idea of umami reach greater heights than in Japan, where it was discovered more than 100 years ago (citation needed, lost interest). You wouldn't expect liquid made from seaweed and dried fish to be so rich and brothy, almost meaty, but this is where umami was first proposed, in the stock called dashi. Dashi is made from dried seaweed and fish and is easy once you've found the ingredients.
Seaweed is traditionally harvested for drying as kombu, but there are so many applications for seaweed now - cosmetics, health, agriculture - that it has become hot property, rather than just the stuff you have to climb over on the beach after a storm. So you are more likely to come across it in a garden centre or as an additive in a face cream.
The other ingredient is a dried fish called bonito or katsuobushi, which comes shaved or as a powder. I haven't managed to find the flakes in Canberra, so use powder.
An optional umami-laced ingredient used is dried shiitake mushrooms, which add another earthy, vegemite component and richness.
Obviously you can buy premade dashi powder, but stay true - it is so much better when you go through the process of rehydrating the kelp, fish and mushrooms. It takes only a lazy hour so there's no excuse next time you start thinking of things deep-fried and covered in a salt that may or may not contain chicken.
>> Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au.
Udon noodles with dashi and tempura
15-20g kombu, or a sheet about 10-20cm
10g dried shiitake, about 6
25g bonito flakes, or ¼ cup powder
2 tbsp soy
2 tbsp mirin
4 serves udon noodles
4 eggs, poached
1 cup iced cold water
1 cup plain flour (low protein)
2litres vegetable oil, such as canola
120 ml sesame oil
vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, basil leaves and zucchini, cut into bite-sized pieces.
To make the dashi, wipe the kombu with a wet cloth then soak in 900 millilitres of cold water with the shiitake for about 20 minutes.
Bring to below a simmer, about 60C (the liquid shouldn't be moving), and maintain this temperature for about an hour. Then raise the temperature to 80C, still below a simmer. Turn off the heat and add a handful of bonito flakes or powder. It's hard to give exact quantities, you'll get used to how strong you want it, but remember it is easier to dilute than concentrate.
Soak for 10 minutes, then strain. Now you are in possession of dashi and a whole lot of possibility.
To make a meal out of this, heat the dashi (don't boil it), add the soy and mirin (taste as you add, you might need less than two tablespoons of each).
Reheat the noodles in a separate pot of boiling water and pour into a large bowl, add the stock, a poached egg and sliced spring onions. Such a beautiful and simple dish. You can stop here, or add tempura.
Don't buy a packet batter mix for the tempura. All you need is a cold egg yolk, iced water and flour. To keep the batter light you need to avoid gluten forming, which is why you want iced water. Also, make it just as you are about to use it.
Heat the vegetable oil to about 160C-170C. In a bowl, using a couple of chopsticks, whisk the egg into the water. Sprinkle over the flour and mix until most of the flour is incorporated – don't worry if you can still see a bit of flour and it's lumpy, that's the idea. Toss your prepared vegetables in flour and then in the batter, and drain a little off.
Add the sesame oil to the hot vegetable oil, and bring the temperature back to 160C-170C.
Float the battered vegetables in and sort of sprinkle the top as it cooks with little strands of batter from your fingertips, which builds up the crispy batter. Keep the vegetables moving while they cook. They will only take about a minute. Drain and serve immediately.