[Global] January can be a contradictory month for cooks: we are naturally drawn to comforting food, but pesky New Year’s resolutions mean that many of us feel compelled to seek out lighter, healthier options. There is a solution, which can be found by understanding the nature of the fifth taste, umami. For years in the west we thought that there were four tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. In 1908 a Japanese scientist discovered a fifth, umami, and so his nation’s food developed with this knowledge. But umami was not explored by western cooks until about 15 years ago.
The idea that there are five tastes – and possibly more, as it is thought that creaminess or fat may also qualify – fundamentally changed the way we cook, season and, of course, eat.
The discovery shifted the paradigm: instead of considering four tastes, a chef must now take into account five and ensure they are balanced. This equilibrium is very important as creates harmony, specifically on the taste receptors in the mouth.
As I was teaching myself to cook by eating at great restaurants in the early Nineties, I was aware that the type of food they were serving was not really sustainable as it relied on very extreme seasoning, mainly salt and fat. This is fine for a treat but not something you can eat every day. However, when you understand that there is a fifth taste, with its own receptors, it changes the way you season.
Umami is a savouriness that feels salty at the beginning but does not have that salty ‘burn’ that lingers. Instead it grips the mouth with a moreish tang. It is present in foods such as mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, cured hams and oysters. You’ll also find it in many of the foods of south-east Asia, such as fish sauce, seaweed, miso and soy sauce.
Heston Blumenthal was the first British chef to really understand this new taste and consequently his food was remarkable for being incredibly delicious – but in no way salty. He would construct dishes that encompassed all five tastes and the result was extraordinary. I remember a dish at the Fat Duck in 1997 of crab biscuit, marinated salmon, seaweed, oyster and foie gras which was like a boxing match in the mouth. Most importantly, it was delicious. He developed this further by adding elements of umami into his dishes, relying less on salt and instead allowing the natural taste of the ingredients to shine through.
In classic French cooking, stocks and highly reduced demi-glace sauces made from veal bones are a major source of umami. These provide the deep savouriness that the Japanese derive from miso, seaweed and soy sauce. Pity the poor French commis chefs of the past, who would spend the first year or two of their careers shovelling coal in the basement to keep the coal-fired stoves alight and the stocks simmering – all in the name of umami which they didn’t even know existed.
Now, thanks to the Japanese, we more fully understand what makes food comforting. Rather than tucking into steamed puddings or mashed potato you can get the same amount of cosy satisfaction from dishes such as miso, mushroom or chicken soups. You can make them more substantial by adding vegetables, pulses, seafood or cured ham. So, instead of adding more salt to a stew, splash in a dash of soy sauce and lime juice. The possibilities are endless.
View original article at: Stephen Harris: Embrace the power of umami