Rediscovering the Fifth Taste

October 2006

  • Report on the Umami Open Symposium held on 17 June 2006 at the Panasonic Center, Tokyo, Japan

    We frequently bring you reports from countries around the world that are waking up to the importance of umami, but what about the country that first discovered and named the fifth taste? A recent high profile seminar in Tokyo aimed to get the Japanese back in touch with what is officially recognized as one of the country's greatest scientific discoveries.

    The event brought together three of Japan's leading chefs, each specializing in a different world cuisine, namely Japanese, Chinese and French. They each created a dish for the event in which the role of umami was crucial, and invited the audience, made up of members of the public, chefs, catering school students & pupils and media representatives, to sample each and experience the role of umami in different cuisines for themselves.

    Umami in Japan

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Before this, however, the keynote address was given by Dr. Kenzo Kurihara, Principal of Japan's Aomori University, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Umami Information Center, who introduced the audience to some of the fundamentals of the fifth taste. As Dr. Kurihara pointed out, "the word umami, which is of course of Japanese origin, is now attracting a great deal of interest in culinary circles around the world, but I wonder if the term is being correctly understood in its country of origin?"


    With this in mind, he explained that the umami taste was imparted in foods by the amino acid glutamate and the nucleotides guanylate and inosinate, which are broken down proteins, and the synergistic effect that occurs when these substances are combined in foods, resulting in enhanced flavour.


    The Importance of Umami

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Dr. Kurihara emphasized the importance of umami in the way we eat by pointing out the crucial role played by amino acids and other substances that cause the umami taste in our daily diets.

    The way a food tastes to us is dependent primarily on the levels of amino acids, umami substances and salt present. Dr. Kurihara illustrated this point by citing two different foods - tofu and steak. He pointed out that most people find steak to be more flavoursome or delicious than tofu, and this flavour is provided by the proteins and amino acids present in the steak.

    Moreover, such is the importance of amino acids, umami substances and salt that it is possible to combine these in such a way that the flavour of certain foods, including shellfish such as crab, sea urchin and scallop, can be recreated.

    Dr. Kurihara had given the audience an insight into the role of umami, and whetted their appetites for a more tangible encounter with the fifth taste. Fortunately three of Japan's top chefs were on hand to satisfy these appetites, with a cookery demonstration and public tasting session.

    Umami in Different Cuisines

    Takashi Tamura is a renowned expert on Japanese cuisine, and a prominent member of a number of culinary related bodies in Japan, including the Mebaekai, a 73-year-old organization that supports and promotes Japanese restaurants nationwide. He is also the third generation proprietor of the very prestigious Tsukiji Tamura ryotei restaurant in Tokyo. He prepared for the audience a traditional Japanese dish called nishime, where meat and vegetables are simmered in stock until no liquid remains. The dish featured umami rich ingredients, including shiitake mushrooms, dashi stock and chicken. Explaining his attitude towards umami, and its role in his cooking, Mr. Tamura said he felt that, "umami is part of the DNA of Japanese people", and that they are predisposed to recognize and appreciate the taste.

    Yuji Wakiya is one of Japan's leading creators of Chinese cuisine, with an increasing international profile thanks to his appearance at Spain's 'Madrid Fusion 2005' event. He has worked at a number of prestigious restaurants in Tokyo, and is currently proprietor of the Turandot Yusenkyo restaurant group, with branches throughout Tokyo and Yokohama. Abiding by his motto of 'tradition and creativity', he creates fresh and exciting Shanghai style cuisine. At this event, Mr. Wakiya created a simmered dish of seasonal vegetables and noodles, with umami provided by dried scallops, dried pork flesh and tang stock. He pointed out that the dried scallops were the key to umami in his dish. "Although they are not the main ingredient, they impart a powerful umami flavour."


    Kiyomi Mikuni is a true expert in French cuisine, having spent much of his career working in France. He was made head chef of the Japanese Embassy in Switzerland when he was only 20, and proceeded to work in a number of Michellin starred restaurants in France including Trois Gros and Auberge du Lille. In 1999 he was named as one of the top five chefs on five continents by the Relais & Chateaux hotel group. He created a consomme of sea bream, which although French in character contained the quintessentially Japanese umami ingredients of kombu and katsuobushi. Although he is an expert in French cuisine, Mr. Mikuni said, "I looked to Japanese cooking for inspiration on this dish, and used kombu to provide the base of the umami flavour."



    The Philosophy of Umami


    Each of the chefs also expanded on how they try to make the most of umami in their everyday cooking. The audience was shown recordings of each chef in his natural environment. Yuji Wakiya explained how he felt that timing was essential when it came to umami. "How far away the customers are from the kitchen, how many customers there are: many of these kinds of factors are taken into consideration when cooking to ensure that customers can enjoy the flavours of the food in the best condition possible."

    The other two chefs both emphasized the importance of close understanding between everyone working in their restaurant. Takashi Tamura pointed out that each member of staff should be aware of the head chef's way of thinking, and carry out their role accordingly. Of particular importance is the chef who for ten years has been responsible for making the umami rich dashi. Similarly, Kiyomi Mikuni ensures that his staff are aware of his particular culinary philosophy, and holds monthly meetings with chefs from all his restaurants to impart his 'Mikuni-isms'


    A Learning Experience


    After sampling the dishes created by each chef, participants were shown graphs depicting the amino acid content of all three creations, and asked to guess which graph related to which dish. This exercise encouraged people to relate what they tasted to what they had learned about umami substances, and was one of the most popular parts of the symposium. Feedback from the event was very positive, with several of the participants commenting that although they were aware of umami previously, they had got a real insight into what it actually involved. Others were struck for the first time by just how important umami is to food and flavour.

    All three chefs were agreed that umami itself is becoming more and more recognized as an important part of all cuisines around the world, and they asked those present at the seminar to spread the word about the fifth taste. They also stressed, however, that at the same time it was important that Japanese people themselves did not forget the importance of one of their countries greatest discoveries: umami.

  • Dr. Kurihara

    Mr.Tamura

    Mr.Tamura's Nishime

    Mr.Wakiya

    Mr. Wakiya's chinese noodle soup

    Mr.Mikuni and presenter Ms.Tsutsumi

    Mr.Mikuni's consomme

  • Dr. Kurihara

    Mr.Tamura

    Mr.Tamura's Nishime

    Mr.Wakiya

    Mr. Wakiya's chinese noodle soup

    Mr.Mikuni and presenter Ms.Tsutsumi

    Mr.Mikuni's consomme