Der Wurst Sushi
Umami: why the fifth taste is so important
The strong savoury flavour that makes everything from spag bol to Marmite so hard to resist may serve a vital evolutionary purpose. We could even use it to fight malnutrition. Pass the parmesan
I am often flabbergasted when I think about how humans came to develop such complex culinary skills. Granted, 1.8m years have passed since our ancestor, homo erectus, began to cook. But still, leavened bread! That was one hell of a happy accident.
Our predilection for umami – the only recently recognised (by western scientists) “fifth taste”, after salt, sweet, sour and bitter – is a fascinating piece in the jigsaw of our gastronomic evolution. Since studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this moreish savoury taste (the other four “basic tastes” had been widely accepted for, ooh, a few thousand years), so much in the history of recipes suddenly makes sense. Umami is why the Romans loved liquamen, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed as liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelised meat and veg. It is why Marmite is my mate.
Escoffier, the legendary 19th-century French chef who invented veal stock, felt sure that a savoury fifth taste was the secret of his success, but everyone was too busy gorging on his food to take much notice of his theories. Fast forward to the 21st century and many cooks are delighted to finally see proof of what they had instinctively known. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena is ranked fifth best in the world, served the first incarnation of his dish five ages of parmigiano reggiano in different textures and temperatures in 1995. More recently, however, Bottura says that the discovery that parmesan is probably the most umami ingredient in western cookery has enhanced his appreciation and understanding of the dish. “Five textures, five temperatures and five levels of umami,” is how he now views it.
Putting a name to a taste
Umami has been variously translated from Japanese as yummy, deliciousness or a pleasant savoury taste, and was coined in 1908 by a chemist at Tokyo University called Kikunae Ikeda. He had noticed this particular taste in asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, but it was strongest in dashi – that rich stock made from kombu (kelp) which is widely used as a flavour base in Japanese cooking. So he homed in on kombu, eventually pinpointing glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of savoury wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavour enhancer MSG.
What gives good glutamate?
A quintessential example of something umami-tasting, says Paul Breslin of Monell University, who was among the first scientists to prove the existence of umami taste receptors, is a broth or a soup: “Something that has been slow-cooked for a long time.” Raw meat, he points out, isn’t that umami. You need to release the amino acids by cooking, or “hanging it until it is a little desiccated, maybe even moulded slightly, like a very good, expensive steak”. Fermentation also frees the umami – soy sauce, cheese, cured meats have it in spades. In the vegetable kingdom, mushrooms are high in glutamate, along with those favoured by children such as petit pois, sweetcorn and sweet cherry tomatoes. Interestingly, human milk is one of the highest MSG-containing mammalian milks.
Magical flavour-bomb maths
So why is bolognese sauce with cheese on top, or a cheeseburger with ketchup so finger-licking good? Because, says Laura Santtini, creator of the umami condiment Taste No 5 Umami Paste, when it comes to savoury, “1+1=8”. In the simplest terms, umami actually comes from glutamates and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides, which also occur naturally in many foods. When you combine ingredients containing these different umami-giving compounds, they enhance one another so the dish packs more flavour points than the sum of its parts. This is why the cooked beef, tomato and cheese in the above examples form a ménage à trois made in heaven. And why ham and peas is a gastronomic no-brainer. And, oh dear, why it’s hard to stop popping Smoky Bacon Pringles.
Why we love umami
Just as humans evolved to crave sweetness for sugars and, therefore, calories and energy, and loathe bitter to help avoid toxins, umami is a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids, which are essential for life). This begs two interesting questions. First, why is our innate penchant for umami best served by cooked or aged foods? Breslin’s answer is that cooking or preserving our main protein sources detoxifies them. “”Part of the great digestion formula,” he says, “is not only the ability to procure nutrients, but it’s to protect yourself from getting sick while you do that. If you don’t get proper nutrition you can live to see another day, but if you’re poisoned, it can end it for you right there.” Second, why are some fruits and vegetables that are low in protein, high in glutamate? Some cases, such as mushrooms, says Breslin, we cannot explain. However, for others, such as tomatoes, it could be the same reason why fruit is so sweet. “The sugar is there so you grab the fruit and spread the seeds around. It could be that the mixture of sugar and glutamate in some of these foods is there to make them extra attractive.”
A force for good?
Lacing cheap, fattening, non-nutritious foods with MSG to make them irresistible is clearly not responsible, but some argue that glutamate can be used responsibly to good effect. Breslin says one of his key motivations is finding ways through taste research to feed malnourished people. “What you want,” he says “are things that are very tasty that kids will eat, that will go down easy and will help them.” Meanwhile, Professor Margot Gosney, who chairs the Academic and Research Committee of the British Geriatrics Society is “looking into increasing the umami content in hospital food,” to make it more appealing to older people, without overdoing the salt.
When I first learned about the fifth taste, I became obsessed, seeking it out in ingredients and experimenting. However, not everyone is convinced that umami should even be classified as a basic taste. Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses queries why “we need neuroscience and the Japanese” to alert us to it, when tastes such as salt and sweet are clear as day. “If you think of what has umami,” he says, “it’s not obvious that there’s something in common with all these things,” and in lab tests, westerners struggle to consciously detect it.”
Do you savour the umami in foods, or is the concept meaningless to you? And where do you stand on the MSG food additive debate?
This cuttlefish is best known for squid rings; apart from them, I have never given it further thought.
Squid is also known as calamari.
ungainly looking ugly beast, and most would immediately discard the idea of eating one.
However, squid rings, battered or crumbed have proved acceptable, if a little rubbery, for most.
How to clean squid – A good post on Mama’s Tavern
But here’s a recipe for you:
Nigel Slater’s squid romesco recipe
Tuck into some flavoursome seafood
Make the sauce first. Into the bowl of a food processor, put 450g drained weight of canned or bottled red peppers, 5 anchovy fillets, 20g of fresh white bread, 3 tbsp of sherry vinegar, 5 tbsp of olive oil and 2 tsp of smoked paprika. Blitz to a smooth, brick-red sauce. Then prepare the squid. Score the body sacks of 4 medium to smallish squid, which have been cleaned and trimmed, cutting lightly into the flesh in a lattice pattern. Warm a little olive oil in a nonstick pan then add two cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced. Once the garlic has softened, add the squid and cook quickly. Transfer the squid to a plate, put the romesco sauce into the pan, stir briefly to heat, then spoon around the squid. Serves 2.
If possible look for Cornish, responsibly caught squid. Avoid any whose provenance is unclear, or fish that are too small. Cook the squid for seconds rather than minutes. Once it is opaque and starts to curl in the pan, it is cooked. You can grill, peel and purée your own peppers, but the difference in flavour is negligible.
Use prawns instead of squid. Grill the squid on a hot griddle pan or over a barbecue instead of frying it. Make a spicy romesco by adding a fresh red chilli to the sauce as you blitz it.
Stuffed squid – recipe
BBQ squid – no recipe
Calamari Stewed with Tomatoes – Recipe
Sauteed Squid and Kimchi – Recipe
It can be served with pasta, in a salad, on rice, even on a pizza or simply pan-fried. Entirely up to one’s imagination.
Or sashimi or makimonos…
Yesterday, I was taking a stroll through Twitterland, as I am apt to do when bored, and I saw something referred to as ‘Kazan Roll’ and the mention of sushi. So *click* off I went on my tangent.
I love going off on my tangent, it can take you to all manner of fun places. It’s better than going off on your bicycle, bicycles are boring but at least they have a seat, with a tangent you have to be on your toes all the time.
Now of course the mention of sushi immediately set my taste buds alight, because I do really love sushi and would eat it daily, if my budget would allow it; sadly not.
So I was confronted by the above photo. My immediate reaction was ‘WTF is that?’ That can’t be food, it’s certainly not sushi, despite the presence of algae and what appears to be rice. I mean, I am not a connoisseur of sushi, but I do know what it ought to look like. Maybe it was American, it appeared to have baby-poop supermarket mustard squirted on it. Really it looked as though a sushi chef had had a fight at a hotdog stand.
I had never heard of Kazan Roll before, and this sight piqued my interest. What is a Kazan Roll. Off to visit the Great God Google, I knew that I would find the answer there, his knowledge is boundless, corporate and all things that control the government.
The picture is Spicy Kazan Roll from California Grill found as found on Big Wayne’s BBQ Blog. This looks a little more presentable… and edible. BTW, visit that link there are some other totally awesome food photos.
Searching, I can’t find out what the ‘goop’ on top is. I see some reference to Fireball sauce, and another to mayo… OMG mayo on sushi, how crass; The only people I know that put mayo on everything are Americans and Peruvians. But I am still in the dark as to what the filler is between the makimonos.
If there is anybody out there who can enlighten me, I’d love a comment.
This is Danio rerio a lovely peaceful tropical aquarium fish.
That is until the Japanese scientists got a hold of it.
Now it is a frankenfish.
The ‘glofish’ is a genetically modified Zebra Danio, bred with a natural fluorescence gene to make it glow in the dark.
The cause was apparently noble, but mixing and messing with genes of any creature is not noble.
The ‘glofish’ have since become aquarium fish, sold in brightly coloured hues with exotic names; starfire red, electric green, sunburst orange, cosmic blue and galactic purple.
New Zealand has just had a battle after approval was mistakenly given to import ‘dyed’ fish and they turned out to be ‘glofish’. The original lot was 210 fish, but the Ministry of Ag and Fish have already destroyed 300; so they breed.
But having pretty little fish in your aquarium is not the end of the story.
Glow in the dark sushi made from genetically modified fish becomes the latest food craze to hit America
Sushi that glows in the dark has become the latest must try food craze across America.
Inspired by genetically modified fish first bred for scientific research, a video showing how to make the glowing sushi has become a huge hit online.
The recipes use glofish, a brand of genetically modified (GM) fluorescent zebrafish sold by Yorktown Technologies, which are available to buy in pet shops.
Source: MailOnLine Read more
Yes, you can get glow-in-the-dark sushi made from these genetically modified fish.
Now I love sushi, sashimi and makimonos, but there is no way I am going to knowingly put a GMO in my mouth, with or without wasabi.
The latest fad, ‘glofish’ has become the newest must-try.
I find the whole thing rather sad that we have to invent shit like this. It is another sign of the indulgent human race doing anything to have ‘fun’.
Most of us are familiar with sushi even if we don’t like it. When sushi is served it usually comes with wasabi (the green horse radish paste) and gari (the light brown, sometimes pinky stuff that tastes like ginger).
What exactly is gari? Most of us just say, “oh that’s ginger.”
Well, it is, but it is pickled ginger.
Pickled ginger is no mystery, the recipe is simple, you can make it at home.
What you need:
- ½kg (1 lb) fresh ginger
- 2 cups unseasoned rice vinegar
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 1 Tbs salt
What you do:
Scrape or peel the root, slice thinly using a mandolin. Blanch the ginger for about 30 seconds in boiling water or enough to soften it. Seperately, add vinegar, sugar, and salt to 1.8lts (3 pints) of water dissolve and bring to the boil. Once the ginger has been strained and put into a large jar, cover with the conserve. Seal, let cool and refrigerate.
It will be ready to use in about 8 hours, and will keep refrigerated for up to three months.
Some other suggestions:
Of course, now that you have your pickled ginger a whole new world opens. Apart from sushi, you can use it in vinaigrettes, fruit salads, and green salads. Use it in marinades for roasted meats and fish. Or in sandwiches (especially Vietnamese banh mi) or in shrimp summer rolls with fresh herbs and rice noodles. Try adding the ginger to stir-fries to enhance the flavour.
I was suprised at the number of authoritative blogs and sites on Japanese cuisine that don’t know the difference between nigiri sushi and maki-mono. Maki-mono are sushi, but they are not (as popularly called) sushi rolls.
And this is how to make makis (popular abbreviation):
And, how to make sushi rice:
Ever wondered about etiquette at a Japanese restaurant…
Just as a matter of interest, this is sashimi: