Umami, meditation and pills

So this Friday I am going Japanesey and actually am well excited. It was a real privilege to be invited along to do a special supper club as part of Brighton Japan.  This  ten day  festival of wide-ranging Japan-related topics and treats with a chunk of local businesses getting involved in creative activities offering  fantastic and interesting events.

Personally speaking it has honestly been a challenge, pushing me out of my culinary comfort zone. Working with a set of condiments that whist not exactly new are certainly very different, though truthfully my cooking ethos is mostly centred around  flavour balance of sweet, salty, savoury and sour….and Japanese cookery is indeed about this too.

I want to deliver a menu that keeps to my usual 5 course supper club formula,  a mini soup, veg starter, fish, meat and pud with fruit; whilst obviously using and integrating Japanese ingredients.  In its writing I have been reminded of  Dashi a clear stock made with kombu, shitake mushroom and at time bonito flakes.  Umami water some may say. Japanese cuisine is rich in umami ingredients, soy sauce, miso, mirin and sake which all provide the basis for many Japanese dishes and have a high umami content.

Umami the 5th taste discovered and developed in the early 1900’s at Tokyo Imperial University by Dr Kikunae Ikeda who was employed by  to research and investigate the flavour giving elements of Kombu kelp. He was fascinated by its natural ‘deliciousness’ and thought it should be possible to commercially manufacture the compound if he were to isolate the flavour giving substance. He pursued his theory and found that stocks made from Kombu did indeed contain high levels of the naturally occurring amino acid, glutamic acid. The white substance evident in the Kombu was rich in glutamate that when removed and used it did add depth and enhance flavour. In 1908 the term ‘umami’ was applied to Dr Ikedas discovery, a word derived from the Japanese language, meaning savoury or delicious. From 1909 his findings led to the commercial production of the flavouring enhancer MSG which is produced using a bacterial fermentation process.

Umami is detected in amino acid rich foods that give a sense of lingering mouth-feel and body. It is not a detectable taste of itself, but it tends to accentuate, deepen and balance flavour. The perception of flavour is complex and it is unusual for a single substance to be responsible for the flavour of a certain foodstuff. So how can this seemingly tasteless substance be detected? Taste cells are situated within taste buds and on the surface of these cells are taste receptors. It is through these receptors that the 4 tastes and umami are detected. Going all sciency for a moment helps to understand;  umami taste is given by many small molecules. Studies conducted over the last 15 years have proposed to understand what triggers the taste receptors to detect umami. Two specific receptors glutamate selective G protein mGluR4 and mGluR1 are activated by both glutamate and nucleotides. Research has also concluded that these taste receptors may also be evident in the stomach . This theory has an evolutionary root and the proteins contained within the amino acids are detected through the vagus nerve in the stomach, sending a message to the brain and the umami is experienced.

Umami is found in foods that are rich in amino acids. Generally food and beverages that are at their peak in terms of ripeness and those that are aged cured, fermented, roasted or toasted have a high umami content. Ripening, maturing, drying, curing and fermentation are all processes that concentrate flavour thus increase umami.


If we take for example, a tomato. An unripe green tomato is not as flavoursome as a fully ripened red one. As a tomato, ripens, the natural content of amino acids and glutamates increase. This model can be applied to many vegetables.


This process is in effect another form of ripening.  When a cheese matures the proteins are broken down into smaller polypeptides. The flavour of the cheese deepens and we can see this clearly evident in parmesan which is a very umami rich cheese.

Drying and Curing

These methods both concentrate flavour and break down proteins. By removing moisture in a food levels of guanylate are known to increase. Smoking and salting also have the same flavour enhancing consequence.


This process is perhaps the most effective way to increase umami and is central to Japanese and some Asian cuisines. In these process bacteria, enzymes and other living organisms break down larger molecules into smaller compounds. Thus proteins are converted into amino acid.

I am no umami expert; the sciency bit loses me beyond taste receptors  be but in 2010 whilst at Brighton uni doing my degree in Food and Culinary Arts  I was fortunate to interview Claude Bosi of the michelin starred Hibiscus. He uses lots of dashi – Japanese stock as the backbone of many of his dishes and went to Japan on a umami seminar;  he is very much fascinated by their cuisine whilst at the same time feeling that umami detecting is inherent in most good chefs and cooks.  Around this time I did some taste research making some maki rolls where I flavoured 3 batches of  rice with water, kombu dashi and an MSG sachet. The latter was the most flavoursome though the rolls made with dashi were the most favoured in my small blind testing sample.

I have used some of this knowledge and have been recipe testing like a loon….honestly its a bit scary not using my usual tin of Spanish and North African spices, though have found some comfort in sesame seeds. The menu is a little bit playful and full I hope of ‘savoury deliciousness’. I am to be joined by the youthful and gorgeous duo that make up Yum Yum sushi – who make and sell vegetarian sets each week at Churchill square farmers market and on Friday shall be handing round some bits as you guests arrive. Also there is to be some entertainment by a fantastic local performer; though the element of surprise will stop me from sharing on this. So for me; now for some meditation or perhaps come Friday some medication. COME COME


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