Umami in Brazil

January 2007

Tasting sessions

  • Report on The 1st Molecular Gastronomy Symposium: learning about the Umami , held in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 6 November 2006

    The national dish of Brazil , a tantalizing stew of black beans, pork and beef called feijoada, is just one of several umami rich dishes to be found in the nation's cuisine . With this in mind, it was high time that the first ever symposium on umami was held in the country, at the Gastronomy Centre of Anhembi Morumbi University. It offered participants a chance to experience the fifth taste for themselves, and talk directly with those in the know.

    The keynote speaker was David Kasabian, a US-based chef, food writer and photographer, who is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and one of the world's foremost exponents of umami; so much so that in 2005 he co-authored a book with his wife Anna called The Fifth Taste - Cooking with Umami. He was joined by Professor Ricardo Maranhao of the symposium's hosts, Anhembi Morumbi University, Kumiko Ninomiya of the Umami Information Center in Tokyo, and Mara Salles, who as well as being a professor at Anhembi Morumbi University is also well known in Brazil as chef and owner of Tordesilhas restaurant. The audience of around 80 people was made up of students and staff of the Gastronomy Center, chefs from around Brazil, food journalists and others.

    Molecular Gastronomy and Umami

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Taste and flavour distinction
    Professor Maranhao began by speaking about molecular gastronomy, a term that refers to taking a scientific approach to food. Although umami is a completely naturally occurring taste in food, it is often viewed in conjunction with molecular gastronomy because it is a relatively recently discovered taste, whose discovery and study can tell us a lot about what we eat and why we like certain foods. The professor discussed the novel and challenging molecular gastronomy menus of Spain's Ferran Adria, as well as the work of the UK's Heston Blumenthal and Harold McGee of the USA, who both offer new insights into the cooking process from a scientific viewpoint. Professor Maranhao's overview prepared the audience for a more detailed exploration of umami from the other speakers.


    What's So Important About Dashi?

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Ms.Ninomiyia preparing 'Ichiban Dashi'
    Ms. Ninomiya of the Umami Information Center was particularly keen to stress the importance of dashi stock. "in Japanese cuisine," she said, "the major taste element in the traditional broth dashi is umami." Dashi is the basis of many dishes in Japanese cookery, not just staples such as miso soup, and its importance to Japanese cuisine is considerable.

    As seasoned umami aficionados will know, the umami taste in dashi is heightened because of the synergistic effect that comes about when the amino acid glutamate, which is present in kombu kelp, is combined with the nucle o tide inosinate, which is present in the other key dashi ingredient, katsuobushi, or dried bonito flakes. As Ms. Ninomiya pointed out, "in the West, people use vegetables and meat to make bouillon, and this is also a combination of glutamate from vegetables and inosinate from meat, and in China people make a stock from chicken and vegetables called tang ... so people have long been using this combination of glutamate and inosinate to make a strong taste."


    Pure Umami

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Demonstration by Ms.Salles
    So umami, and the synergistic effect that occurs when different umami substances are combined, is present in food all around the world. There may be a reason, however, why umami was discovered and has tended to be better understood in Japan. As Ms. Ninomiya explained, "the difference between Western and Japanese cuisine is that Japanese people know about the pure umami taste in dashi, but in western cuisine, people enjoy the taste of food including umami." In other words, Western cooking tends to present the diner with a combination of different tastes layered together, perhaps making it more difficult to discern umami. In order to rectify this, Ms. Ninomiya later showed the audience how to make, and gave them a chance to sample, authentic Japanese dashi.


    Out of the Kitchen...

    David Kasabian is also keen to give people a chance to experience umami for themselves. As he pointed out at the start of his talk, "what I would like to do is to bring umami out of the laboratory and into the kitchen, and perhaps more importantly than that, to bring umami out of the kitchen and on to the table." It is only by getting people to taste and recognize umami that they will truly get to grips with it, and with that in mind Mr. Kasabian gave the audience various tasting opportunities.

    Mr. Kasabian first of all described the importance of the umami taste by listing the many positive effects it has on food. Food with umami, he said, is, "rich, deep, satisfying and long-lasting," while food without it can taste, "shallow, insipid and fleeting." If a dish contains a good balance of other tastes, umami will heighten impact, improve palatability, contribute mouth feel and trigger salivation, which helps dissolve other tastes and odours to make eating a more pleasurable experience.


    Experiencing Umami

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Mr.Kasabian
    These advantages can of course be experienced without the diner actually being aware of umami itself, but Mr. Kasabian wanted to ensure that those attending the seminar were able to discern the fifth taste for themselves, and carried out a tasting experiment to facilitate this. Each participant began by tasting a sample of chicken stock, which is in itself quite high in umami. This was followed by chicken stock with some monosodium glutamate (MSG) added which, thanks to the glutamate, had enhanced meatiness and mouth feel. Mr. Kasabian asked the audience to compare the two samples, stating that, "the difference is umami." A final sample of chicken stock included a nucleotide as well as MSG, showing the synergistic effect of umami in action.

    This reaction of umami substances is carried out in cooking by combining ingredients that contain them. Mr. Kasabian outlined what factors gave certain ingredients umami. Some, such as oysters, sea vegetables and mushrooms have naturally high levels, while maturity increases umami in foods such as tomatoes and meat such as chicken and mutton. Muscle that has been exercised well is more likely to display the fifth taste, for example meat used in pot roast is higher in umami than filet mignon, and tuna has higher levels than cod. Aging, fermenting and cooking methods such as braising and searing also increase umami, because these actions break down the proteins in the foods into their constituent amino acids, including glutamate.


    Umami Close To Home

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Cuscuz

    Old Fown warsaw - UMAMI Infomation Center
    Feijoada
    Every cuisine around the world, in fact, utilizes umami in some form or another. It is an inescapable part of our food, and always has been, and Brazilian cuisine is no exception. Mr. Kasabian was particularly enthusiastic about the umami in Brazil's national dish, a slow cooked stew containing black beans and various kinds of pork and beef, including salted trimmings (ears, tail, tongue etc.), pork sausage and bacon. "You feel good after eating umami," he said, "and I felt good after a few bowls of feijoada, which, by the way, is loaded with umami, with a wonderful synergy between the nucleotides in the beans and the amino acids in the beef, and they just come together in a way that is so satisfying."

    Mara Salles, owner-chef of the Brazilian restaurant Tordesilhas and professor at Anhembi Morumbi University, took to the stage to prepare another traditional, Brazilian dish called cuscuz. This terrine can contain an assortment of meat, fish and vegetables, and in this case included umami rich ingredients such as shrimps, sardines and tomatoes.

    As these two dishes highlighted in the seminar demonstrate, Brazilians have long been aware of the benefits to umami in cooking, and this manifests itself in the country's cuisine in numerous ways. For example, tomato extract, which is a concentrated source of umami, is used in the preparation of almost all savoury dishes prepared in the home, including pasta, meat, poultry and fish. Brazilian cuisine is also famed for its traditional barbecue, known as churrasco, which is a popular party dish that includes a wide variety of meats high in umami. On a more everyday level, the most popular dish in Brazil, arroz com feijao or rice and beans, is enhanced by umami courtesy of the pork fat, onions and bacon used in its preparation. In a highly informative seminar, it was perhaps contemplating the presence of umami in some of Brazil's best-loved dishes that more than anything brought home to the audience the importance of the fifth taste.

  • Tasting sessions

    Prof.Maranhao

    Taste and flavour distinction

    Ms.Ninomiyia preparing 'Ichiban Dashi'

    Demonstration by Ms.Salles

    Mr.Kasabian

    Cuscuz

    Feijoada

  • Prof.Maranhao

    Taste and flavour distinction

    Ms.Ninomiyia preparing 'Ichiban Dashi'

    Demonstration by Ms.Salles

    Mr.Kasabian

    Cuscuz

    Feijoada