WHAT is ‘umami’ re­ally all about? Can one have enough of it?

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - By Clin­ton Palanca @In­q_Lifestyle —CONTRIBUTED

De­spite ev­ery­one telling me I’d never be able to eat sushi back home again af­ter en­joy­ing it in Ja­pan, the first thing I did upon go­ing back to work af­ter the hol­i­days was have sushi for lunch.

It’s true that I didn’t visit any of the tem­ples of gas­tron­omy, and I’m look­ing for­ward to do­ing that in the fu­ture. But I felt that the real rev­e­la­tion of Ja­panese food in its nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment was not the sushi, al­though that was, in­deed, or­ders of mag­ni­tude bet­ter what’s served here. I fi­nally un­der­stood what umami was all about.

I was speak­ing to a food writer col­league re­cently and he went off-tan­gent about umami, and how ev­ery­one was ob­sessed with it. I didn’t get to press him on the is­sue, so I don’t know whether he merely thought that umami was over­rated, or whether it was the end of all good things for Philip­pine cui­sine. But I came back to it a few days later when I was try­ing to get the sea­son­ing right for a sini­gang.

One doesn’t want sini­gang to be umami—in fact it makes the broth cloy­ing and fights for space with the acid­ity. There has to be fla­vor, yes, and this comes nat­u­rally from the shrimp or pork. But if you use broth in­stead of wa­ter, or throw in a rich stock cube, then it all goes wrong.

So, per­haps umami isn’t, af­ter all, “linam­nam,” which is sim­ply de­li­cious­ness; who doesn’t want their whole meal to be “ma­li­nam­nam”?

But umami ev­ery­thing? The palate gets fa­tigued.


An­other Ja­panese loan-word which has made its way into com­mon par­lance is “bokeh,” which is ba­si­cally the parts of a pho­to­graph which aren’t in fo­cus. You can’t read a pho­tog­ra­phy gear web­site these days with­out the re­view­ers gush­ing over a lens’ abil­ity to de­liver rich, creamy bokeh, or the dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter of the bokeh from a par­tic­u­lar lens like the Canon 85 1.2L.

I think bokeh be­came an ob­ses­sion af­ter mul­ti­coat­ing and aut­o­fo­cus made it im­pos­si­ble to take a re­ally ter­ri­ble pic­ture: any mod­ern lens, even a cheap one, will give you a sharp im­age, maybe not sharp enough for aerial car­tog­ra­phy, but def­i­nitely sharp enough for Face­book. So the ob­ses­sion with bokeh was born, and with it some re­ally ter­ri­ble pho­to­graphs with rich, creamy bokeh.

Umami as­sumes that the chef has al­ready mas­tered the ba­sics of bal­anc­ing salty, sweet, sour and bit­ter; tex­ture and tem­per­a­ture; and is now play­ing with the “fifth taste,” which it isn’t, re­ally. It’s more of a di­men­sion rather than a co­or­di­nate, a qual­ity rather than an at­tribute.

Chas­ing it at the ex­pense of con­trol­ling the ba­sic el­e­ments of taste is like putting gold leaf ac­cents on a child’s draw­ing.

Strange ob­ses­sion

We stopped in Osaka for an hour to change planes, but the rest of our time was spent on the re­mote north­ern­most is­land of Hokkaido, fa­mous for its beer and the seafood in the seas around it, which sep­a­rate it from the Rus­sian main­land and the nearby town of Vladi­vos­tok.

I de­vel­oped a strange ob­ses-

The best meals are those in which the umami is mod­u­lated and comes when it is needed, and is left out when it is not

sion with its rice: I had never had one like this be­fore. Of rice pro­duced in Ja­pan—most “Ja­panese” rice in Manila is from Cal­i­for­nia—the Hokkaido va­ri­eties are less prized than the south­ern Uon­uma, but its cul­ti­va­tion—and research into new strains—is highly sub­si­dized, and the Yumepirika va­ri­ety is the stuff dreams are made of.

De­spite the va­ri­ety we can get in Manila, we still like our ban­gus to come from Dagu­pan, and our pili to come from Al­bay, lan­zones from Camiguin. Hokkaido is fa­mous for its scal­lops; it also has in dizzy­ing quan­tity gi­ant crabs, salmon, pump­kin, pota­toes and dairy prod­ucts of all sorts—milk, cheese, yo­gurt.

A plain boiled potato, split and slathered with lo­cal but­ter, was el­e­men­tal and tran­scen­den­tal all at the same time. I’m not sure what ex­actly I was ex­pect­ing—per­haps a re­lent­less per­va­sive­ness of umami, or at the very least a cer­tain cen­tral­ity of it—but these sim­ple, pure, earthy tones were en­tirely un­ex­pected.

Best thing?

The Ja­panese were the first to iso­late umami, and, bonded with sodium, we know it as monosodium glu­ta­mate (MSG), ei­ther the best thing that hap­pened to bland food or the devil in­car­nate, de­pend­ing on which side of the de­bate you’re on.

De­spite this, Western food is now ob­sessed with umami, while spurn­ing the dev­il­ish white pow­der— tak tak tak!— that has been around for decades. They fla­vor broth with kombu that have crys­tals of “nat­u­ral” umami, mix parme­san to en­rich food with cheese’s in­her- ent umami, and have even come up with a truly dis­gust­ing tube called Taste Num­ber Five, which com­bines tomato paste, an­chovies, mush­rooms and ear­wax to “just add taste” to any­thing. It’s up­mar­ket Knorr sea­son­ing.

I think that bad Ja­panese food uses MSG in­dis­crim­i­nately (as does bad Chi­nese food, where it got its un­de­served rep­u­ta­tion); and restau­rants tend to go for big umami bomb flavors be­cause they make a big im­pres­sion.

It’s like a col­oratura so­prano’s flour­ish or a big cym­bal crash or a triple som­er­sault.

Sucker punch

Western chefs, es­pe­cially home chefs, are just be­gin­ning to dis­cover it and they try to sneak it into ev­ery­thing. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who I other­wise ad­mire, packs his “all-Amer­i­can” meat­loaf with Mar­mite, mush­rooms, an­chovies and soy sauce—like an in­se­cure Can­tonese line chef putting an ex­tra dash of MSG.

Restau­rants like to open a tast­ing menu with an “umami bomb” of a dish, which is ba­si­cally like deck­ing the diner with a sucker punch so that ev­ery­thing af­ter­wards seems to taste good.

The best meals are those in which the umami is mod­u­lated and comes when it is needed, and is left out when it is not. They should fin­ish neatly, leav­ing a neu­tral, clean taste in the mouth, and not hav­ing you gulp­ing for wa­ter or a breath mint.

Umami is the bit of soy sauce that barely licks the fish, leav­ing the rice and the pro­teins to mix and form the per­fect mouth­ful.

Snows­cape be­neath Mount Yotei, Hokkaido

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