The Umami Man

January 2007

Anna and David Kasabian

  • The Umami Man


    Interview with Mr. David Kasabian

    David Kasabian is a man who has come on an extraordinary culinary journey over the past few years. Having only discovered the concept of umami around five years ago - he can date it to early April 2002 - he has since gone on to co-author an acclaimed book entitled The Fifth Taste - Cooking with Umami. We caught up with him to learn more about his take on umami.

    A New Taste

    t time he encountered umami. "I was sitting in a gastronomy lecture at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York," he explains, "and the professor said, 'I want you to know about the so-called fifth taste. It's the taste of MSG, and it's contained in mushrooms, tomatoes and many other foods. It's not a big deal.'"

    It was April 2002, and the previous year Kasabian had left behind a highly successful career in the advertising industry to pursue a lifelong interest in food and cooking by enrolling at one of the USA's most prestigious culinary academies. While his tutor did not view umami as being of much importance, however, Kasabian begged to differ. He was struck by the importance of the existence of an entirely new taste because, as he puts it, "it's the role of a chef to balance tastes and cooking techniques, and in particular the basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. As a chef, I couldn't ignore another taste that I can control."


    Man on a Mission

    From then on, Kasabian made it his mission to explore the fifth taste as comprehensively as possible and, in conjunction with his wife Anna, an established author and writer, to increase awareness and acceptance of the fifth taste and "take it out of the laboratory and onto the dinner table." Umami was a lot less well known in 2002 than it is now, and at that time there were many more misconceptions about what it was. Some people, for example, believed there was something mysterious or spiritual about it. "I've heard people say, 'I've reached a state of umami,'" recalls Kasabian with a chuckle.

    The Kasabians therefore decided the best way for umami to gain acceptance was to invite leading US chefs to testify to the benefits of umami and give examples of how they use it in cooking. The chefs they approached, says Kasabian, could be categorized into two types, based on the way they responded. "One type said, 'umami? Yes', and the second type said, 'oh yes, umami is this mystical sense of being', or they said they'd never heard of it." It was those chefs in the first category, including Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of the world famous chain of Nobu restaurants and Jon Pratt of the Umami Cafe, New York, who appear in the Kasabian's book.


    The Umami Rush

    Each of the 25 chefs who appear contributes two of their umami rich recipes, with the key umami ingredients conveniently highlighted. The Kasabians also introduce some of their favourite recipes, including Coq au Vin Nouveau, which David Kasabian cites as his personal favourite, and which he has agreed to share with UIC website readers. (Click here) Most of the recipes rely on a combination of several umami ingredients, to create the much discussed synergistic effect of umami, which is something that Kasabian places a great deal of importance on.

    When the umami substances glutamate, which is contained in a wide variety of foods, inosinate, found in fish and other foods, and guanylate, mainly found in plants, are combined in cooking, the umami effect is heightened to give what David Kasabian calls, "the umami rush." The chief synergiser in his opinion is the mushroom, which he says, "can change almost anything." He suggests an experiment whereby two bowls of tomato sauce are prepared, one of which has some cooked mushrooms added and stirred into the mixture. When sampling this latter sauce and comparing it with former, he says that diners should notice that, "something else is going on there," namely that the glutamate in the tomatoes combines with the inosinate in the mushrooms to boost the umami.


    Making Sweet Music

    Kasabian also cites the example of the classic American cheeseburger, noting that the beef, tomato and cheese all contain umami substances that combine to boost the overall flavour. He creates the analogy of a piece of music, with different instruments creating different notes, that combine to create a truly exquisite sound. With all this emphasis on synergy, however, one may wonder if dishes that just contain one umami substance are inferior. Not at all, says Kasabian, continuing the music analogy by noting that, "sometimes just a piano is enough, but there are other times when you want to hear a full orchestra."

    It is perhaps no surprise that Kasabian makes a conscious decision to maximize umami in his own diet, "for two reasons; one, because I know that umami in food makes it more appetizing, while an absence of umami means food is bland and unappetizing. The second reason is health; umami makes food more satisfying, so I can reduce the fat and salt content of my food by ensuring I have PLENTY of umami." And to help him ensure that his food is always making the most of what umami has to offer, he keeps what he calls an essential umami pantry that he keeps on hand, "for times when a soup needs zip, an entree needs a lift, or a sauce needs some depth."


    Essential Umami

    The essential umami pantry comprises soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Asian fish sauce (Vietnamese nam pla, among others), canned tomatoes, Parmigiano-reggiano cheese and dried shiitake mushrooms (For more foods, see Umami World Map). All of these ingredients are low in fat and high in umami. Pressed to name his one indispensable umami ingredient, Kasabian plumps for the Parmesan cheese, which, contrary to perceptions, is low in fat, as it is made from skimmed milk, and low in salt, as salt is only added to the rind. Indeed the crunchy white crystals that appear inside good quality Parmesan are not salt but crystals of pure glutamate. The fattiness and saltiness that people perceive in the cheese come from the depth of flavour and mouth feel provided by umami.

    The ability of people to use umami to reduce their salt and fat intake without reducing palatability is obviously important, but what other effects has the rise in awareness of umami had on the way we eat? Kasabian cites the rise in popularity around the world of Asian food, which is universally high in umami, as an important trend. More specifically, however, he identifies, "the influence of Asian ingredients, not least soy sauce, in French and Italian restaurants, where many of the fusion ingredients used are high in umami." In other words, although umami has been used unknowingly in many parts of the world for millennia, it has perhaps been best understood and utilized in Asia, but these umami rich ingredients are now being used increasingly all over the world.

    When David Kasabian first learned of umami back in 2002, it was still not widely known. Indeed, as he points out, "until scientists proved the existance of the umami taste bud in 2001, lots of people including chefs and food scientists rejected the idea that the fifth taste even existed." Now, by contrast, he reckons that, "chefs aware of and cooking with umami may soon be in the majority, and the number of people who have heard of it has increased tenfold, and people eat better as a result." The increase in awareness and understanding of umami over the past five years is indeed phenomenal, and is due in no small part to the work of Kasabian and his wife Anna.
    You can find out more about David and Anna Kasabian's book at www.the-fifth-taste.com

  • Anna and David Kasabian

    David and Anna's book "The Fifth Taste"

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'

    Coq au Vin Nouveau

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'

  • David and Anna's book "The Fifth Taste"

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'

    Coq au Vin Nouveau

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'

    Dish from 'The Fifth Taste'