Umami – the 5th Taste – Flavoring Secrets of Iron Chef Morimoto


Umami –

A Tokyo Imperial University researcher – Kikunae Ikeda –discovered in 1908  glutamic acid  when brown crystals left behind after the evaporation of kombu broth  – when tasted – reproduced the undeniable flavor found in food. The fifth taste – after sweet, sour, salty and bitter – was umami. Mr Ikeda then patented a process of mass producing a crystalline salt of glutamic acid – AKA – monosodium glutamate

While most of those familiar with the term recognize this salt in packaged products also known as MSG or Vetsin in Southeast Asian kitchens – one will delight in using the natural source of glutamate without the side effects of the commercially produced MSG.

The Japanese cooks have always used bonito flakes with kombu leaves to create  dashi – the base for the famous miso soup or misoshiro. Mr Ikeda later determined that food pairings result in a totally different taste – a higher taste intensity greater than the sum of both ingredients.  In this case, food rich in glutamate (kombu) combined with ingredients that have ribonucleotides – bonito flakes.

One of the secrets of Masaharu Morimoto – the original Iron Chef – famous for his Japanese fusion dishes – is the use of kombu or seaweed leaves, to flavor his food. I spied on one of his processes where he rests beautiful fresh slices of soon to be sashimi, in large leaves which was later identified as kombu leaves. The crystals in the dried seaweed sticks to the flesh of the fish to flavor it – the natural way to enhance food, extracting the glutamate from its source.

I tried using this method – kombu leaves can be found abundantly in Korean stores or any Asian Market in the Bay Area – a packet will cost you less than $2 but enough  to impart its magic for several dishes. If you are adventurous, you can use this along with readily available bonito flakes from your local Japanese grocer and create your own dashi – the beginnings of a good miso soup.

This time I tried wrapping salmon fillets in the seaweed hours before grilling time. Kept in the coldest part of the fridge, I allowed it to marinade for at least four hours to allow the natural glutamate crystals to penetrate the flesh. The result was a much tastier fillet, without the commonly known side effects of MSG – the dry throat, tingling at the back of the neck, aka the Chinese food syndrome – you know what I mean. Try using this method – I guarantee a totally flavorful experience.