Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Umami, popularly referred to as a pleasant savoriness. While it is, thus far, a widely accepted fifth basic taste sense (sweet, salty, sour, bitter), there are still some people that still argue that this is not an actual sense or, if it is actually real, that it should be named "brothy" or "meaty". These people are probably the same people that argue that there is no Global Warming, Santa Claus is real, Dick Cheney is not a boor and Sarah Palin is not stupid.

While the word, umami, is of Japanese origin, the sensation cannot be isolated to that country. In the 1800's a French chef (Escoffier) invented veal stock, which was richer and more savory than anything up until that point. At the same time, around the world in Japan, a chemist named Kikunae Ikeda was at the very same time enjoying a bowl of dashi, a classic Japanese soup made from seaweed. He too sensed that he was tasting something beyond category. Dashi has been used by Japanese cooks much the way Escoffier used stock, as a base for all kinds of foods.

Every culture has its own contribution, the French and Japanese are most easily associated with umami, but there are many other contributers that might be more familiar. Take a look at this Umami Foods link if you want to see a comprehensive list of the foods that are considered umami and what part of the world contributed said item to the rest of the world. For instance, the US gave ketchup.

I am excited to be able to spend a month in Japan searching for the best example of umami. I am not certain that will be so simple for a "gaijin", since there are many places that aren't easily identifiable as a "must", or, from what I have heard, there are some places that aren't as accepting of the foreigner. It could be some little noodle place in some alley in some remote village, a tea house in a 400 year old garden or it might be some hotel restaurant in the middle of Tokyo. The trick will be finding the right place(s) or the right person to direct me to the "spot".

There is so much history to Japan and there are many places where the modern meets the feudal lords and samurais of yore. I am curious if I can find where culinary history meets culinary visionary or if I will even know what I am trying to find when I get there. I have some vision of what I should expect, but it is still a bit intangible. I think, in my travels around the world, I have found some examples. There was a sushi place in Bangkok where I had some Kobe sushi that sent my tastebuds to a new place, the Den Deli has the MOST amazing Ramen I have ever had (to include Bones which has a great Lobster Ramen), Domo (Michelin gave it "Top 5 Japanese restaurant in the US) has provided me some very memorable Japanese "country" meals, there was a sushi restaurant in NYC that boggled my mind with the single layer of rice wrapped rolls and these are just some of the more memorable Japanese meals I have had, I haven't even touched on other cuisines. I suppose I shouldn't leave off one of my favorites... if anything has
umami it is the Marilyn Mon Roll at Katsu Sushi in Denver... yes, Denver! As surprising as it may seem to a landlocked city, Denver has a few superior sushi restaurants. Nothing as fresh as I expect to have when I spend a morning at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Umami... I salivate at the thought of flexing that sense.

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