In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda coined the modern term “umami“to describe a distinct salty taste that he attributed to compounds of the natural amino acid, glutamate. But for centuries before that, the masters of Japanese cooking had already understood its secrets.
Umami is by no means exclusive to Japan, and almost every kitchen in the world has developed ways to produce or improve it. In the West, umami is found in the browning reactions that give roasted meats, crusty bread and rich broths their flavor, as well as in the processes of aging cheese, curing meat or drying mushrooms. In Asia, umami is more commonly created by salting or fermenting fish or vegetables to create foods such as fish sauce, belacan or kimchi.
What sets umami apart in Japanese cuisine is the variety of forms it takes, as well as its clarity of flavor. Often the taste of umami is extracted as purely as possible, without combining its sources with rich meat broths or pungent fermented seafood.
One of the purest flavors of umami is found in dried kelp known as kombu, a staple of Japanese cuisine. Takashi Okui’s family has been trading kombu in Tsuruga Seaport in Fukui Prefecture for nearly 150 years. He knows umami as well as anyone, but is quick to point out that good kombu is not just about umami, but finding a balance of flavors.
Different varieties of kombu exhibit varying umami strengths, which in turn make them suitable for a range of purposes. According to Okui, restaurants in Tokyo favor the more pronounced umami taste of rausu kombu, while Kyoto’s more delicate cuisine prefers the balance of rishiri kombu.
Mr. Okui has a theory: Aging kombu increases its umami while allowing other flavors to mellow, producing a more potent, but also more balanced flavor. When I visited his warehouse last week, he made two broths for me: one with dried rishiri kombu that had been aged for 15 years and simply steeped in cold water, and another made from harvested kombu. last summer.
The contrast was stark. The younger kombu stock was tangy and reminiscent of the ocean, with a dominant but not overpowering seaweed flavor. The aged kombu broth, on the other hand, was smooth, golden, and rich in umami. It reminded me of a concentrated chicken consommé.
The idea of aging kombu is relatively new and Mr. Okui is the champion of modern times. But like most things in Japan, it has ancient roots. During the Edo period, ships transported kombu from the kelp forests of Hokkaido to Tsuruga, where it made the overland journey to Lake Biwa and further to the culinary centers of Kyoto and Osaka. The path spanned the network of sea and land travel known as Kombu Road, a vital trade route for the spread of umami around Japan.
Harvesting of Hokkaido kombu would take place during the summer months and the kelp would then have to be dried for the sea voyage to the mainland. By the time the dried product reached Tsuruga, the winter snows made land transport impossible until the following spring. In the 1600s, kombu reaching a Kyoto chef would have already been aged for almost a year.
But kombu is just the tip of the umami iceberg in Japanese cuisine. In Aichi Prefecture I Watched Soy Fermentation miso hachu at the Noda miso factory. Produced in the traditional way to naturally increase the umami of the product, the soybeans are steamed and inoculated with koji mold, a key ingredient for brewing sake, then mixed with salt and water and placed in giant cedar barrels to ferment for up to two years, pressed by river stones.
The fermented miso paste is rich in umami flavor itself, but just as exciting for me was the chance to taste real tamari. Many believe that tamari is some kind of wheat-free soy sauce, but real tamari is a byproduct of the miso-making process, which rises to the top of the barrels as the miso ferments. It is thick and syrupy, the color and texture of motor oil, with a salty and fairly potent umami taste.
Among kombu, miso, tamari, soy sauce, green tea, and dozens of other staples, the number of sources of umami in Japanese cuisine is staggering. Their variety, subtlety and simplicity of flavor are an exciting prospect for any talented chef, offering a wide palette of creation.
When I visited him, Mr. Okui told me that celebrity chef Rene Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen recently tasted his 15-year-old kombu and seemed pretty excited about its possibilities. Perhaps the Kombu route that has distributed umami across Japan for centuries will soon spread around the world.
Around the table is Adam Liaw’s column for Scene on Asian cuisine and culture.
Adam is a cook, author, TV presenter and 2010 MasterChef Australia winner. He has lived, worked and eaten all over the world including Australia, Malaysia, China, India and most recently spent seven years at Tokyo, Japan. He is perpetually hungry.
Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8