Year of umami

Why do lasagne and spaghetti bolognese taste so good? It's all to do with the parmesan and tomatoes.
Why do lasagne and spaghetti bolognese taste so good? It's all to do with the parmesan and tomatoes. Photo: Marina Oliphant

It took a long time for umami to come to the party. Recognition of the ''fifth taste'' lagged several thousand years behind its bandmates sour, sweet, salty and bitter. But in terms of its game-changing importance, the identification of umami in 1908 was the Higgs Boson - the God particle - of the cooking world.

It's about as tricky to define, too. More mysterious than the four other straightforward tastes, umami goes under many labels. Savoury and meaty are commonly used. Also see ''deeply flavoured'', ''long-lasting'' and ''mouth-coating''. Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese chemist who revealed umami to the world after painstakingly isolating the dominant taste of kombu kelp in dashi, named it for the adjective umai, or ''delicious''.

You still won't find it in Larousse. In terms of its application to Western cuisine it's been a slow build, but here we are at the tipping point. As the pointy end of gastronomy heads further down the geeky science path, chefs are putting it in the toolbox for the role it plays in creating flavour.

Everything augurs that 2014 is the year of umami.

Look no further than all that fermentation and pickling going on in restaurant kitchens. They're not only the buzzwords of now; fermentation is at the heart of ''the machinery of flavour'', as David Chang memorably called it, and Rene Redzepi, in an interview for, says, ''The world of fermentation is where you'll find a lot of flavours that give that richness, the effect of, 'Ahh, I feel like I've eaten something'.''

Umami-rich building blocks such as miso, dashi and seaweed, soy sauce and fish sauce, are increasingly imported into non-Asian cooking for their flavour-giving potential.

To the source: Dan Hong, of Ms G's in Potts Point, with the seaweed kombu, from which he makes stock.
To the source: Dan Hong, of Ms G's in Potts Point, with the seaweed kombu, from which he makes stock. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Among his various tricks, Dave Verheul, chef at Carlton restaurant the Town Mouse, has used kombu powder in a mussel broth with char-grilled pork loin. ''It gives an amazing extra layer of flavour,'' Verheul says. ''It's a way of incorporating it in a way that's not obvious.'' Seaweed butter is another one - three or four kinds of dried seaweed are at its base - or fermented apple juice, sloshed around a dish of shaved calamari with oyster cream and raw cucumber.

''Chefs have been using umami for a long time - the ancient Romans were using garum, which was a fermented anchovy sauce - but we know where it comes from now,'' says Verheul. ''It can be as simple as adding parmesan cheese to a cabbage dish we do. I think a lot of what you do as a chef is get as much flavour out of what you do.''

The kombu salt with creamed corn at Woollhara's Pinbone has been another cult-ish success story. ''It's just delicious,'' says head chef Mike Eggert of the salt originally created by Tetsuya Wakuda. ''It tastes just like chicken in a biscuit. I love it with corn and butter. There's just something naughty about that combination.''


Dan Hong (Ms G's, Mr Wong) is also a kombu proponent.

At its essence, as Ikeda discovered, umami is created by naturally occurring amino acids our brains are hardwired to enjoy. Sound highbrow? Well, umami certainly is comfortable on the high road - it's high in shellfish, scallops and sea urchin - but it's equally at home on the low. Commercial tomato sauce is ring-a-ding with umami flavour (a nation's sauce-addicted children cannot be wrong), Vegemite is essentially umami in a jar, and don't forget mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), which Ikeda invented and patented as a flavour enhancer destined to attract controversy until the end of time.

Umami has only been part of cooking's intellectual armoury for a century, yet it explains plenty of instinctual eating. Parmesan cheese and tomato? Yep, umami, meet umami, which certainly helps put the appeal of a classic Italian ragout bolognese into perspective. Cured meats and aged meats are high in umami, as are mushrooms, in particular shiitakes. A hamburger with cheese, tomato and pickles is a complete umami-bomb.

Umami-rich barbecue nori prawns.
Umami-rich barbecue nori prawns. 

Meat stocks and gravies are another rich source of umami - apparently Escoffier sensed he was on to something but couldn't put his finger on it - although its effects are more immediately obvious in Asian cooking. As Niki Segnit indelibly puts it in The Flavour Thesaurus, ''In south-east Asian cooking, adding fish sauce to coconut milk is like giving your stew or curry a central nervous system''.

So how to umami-fy your home cooking? Don't just reach for the tomato sauce bottle, although a splash of Worcestershire sauce can fire up a ragout and a handful of anchovies can do wonderful things to slow-braised lamb shanks. Simply being aware of umami-heavy foods is part of the battle. Add mushrooms and a slosh of fish sauce to jazz up a stir-fry, pickles to make a salad more satisfying. You can easily make your own carrot pickles, for instance, with salt, sugar and white wine vinegar. Verheul recommends kimchi (Korean-style fermented vegetables), available in good Asian groceries, as a backbeat to all sorts of Asian and non-Asian sauces. But don't, he cautions, disappear down the U-bend with it. ''Harnessing umami isn't just about getting as much as you can into a dish. There's got to be balance or you're left eating some mushroom and truffle pasta covered in parmesan with no balance or complexity.''

Tomato gazpacho

Shiitake mushrooms are high in umami.
Shiitake mushrooms are high in umami. 

Heirloom tomatoes, tomato gazpacho, tofu, basil and sesame

Tomato gazpacho

500g ripe red tomatoes

1 garlic clove

1 shallot

1 red chilli

10g basil leaves

100g cucumber, peeled

sea salt

chardonnay vinegar

1. Roughly chop the tomatoes, garlic, shallot, chilli, basil and cucumber. Lightly season with a little salt and chardonnay vinegar, toss together and store in an air-tight container in the fridge overnight.

2. The following day, blend until smooth with a stick blender, adjust the seasoning with some more salt and chardonnay vinegar. Pass through a fine sieve and chill.

Crisp shallots

2 shallots

vegetable oil for frying

1. In a medium sized-pot, heat the vegetable oil to 140C. Peel the shallots and slice finely into rings. Working in small batches, fry the shallot rings until golden and crisp. Drain on a paper towel and season with salt.

To finish

400g mixed ripe heirloom tomatoes, room temperature

100g good quality silken tofu

10 basil leaves

1 tsp white sesame seeds, toasted

ΒΌ tsp sesame oil

1. Season the tofu with sea salt and leave in a warm spot for five minutes.

2. Cut the tomatoes into different sized wedges, season with sea salt and black pepper.

3. Place the warm tofu in a serving bowl, arrange the tomatoes around the tofu. Pour 100 millilitres of the tomato gazpacho over the tomatoes, add the sesame oil, basil leaves and crisp shallots.

4. Finally, sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top.