Vietnamese Umami

January 2007

Question & answer session

  • Vietnamese Umami


    Question & answer session
    Report on the Culinary Culture and Umami Symposium, held in Hanoi, Vietnam on 26 October 2006

    That Vietnam boasts a cuisine rich in umami is not in doubt - our own Vietnamese recipe book is testament to that - but how well is the concept grasped in Vietnam at present? This recent event aimed to alert Vietnamese to the fifth taste present in their own cooking.

    Co-hosted by the Vietnamese Ministry of Health's National Institute of Nutrition and Hanoi Tourism College, the seminar took place at Hanoi 's Melia Hotel, and was well attended by leading members of the country's catering profession, who are well equipped to act as opinion leaders, and can disseminate information about the fifth taste throughout Vietnam.


    A Tradition of Delicious Dishes


    Writer Bang Son


    Historian Duong Trung Quoc

    The event featured an eclectic mix of speakers from Vietnam and Japan. Eminent Vietnamese writer Mr. Bang Son is famous in his native country for his encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous cuisine and culture, and is an author of more than forty books. He gave the audience an overview of Vietnamese cuisine, its key characteristics and special features.

    Mr. Son emphasized the diversity and versatility of his country's cuisine, commenting that, "from simple, plain ingredients available, the Vietnamese, by their cleverness and talent, created many delicious dishes, which they have bequeathed to subsequent generations. Some dishes are difficult to track down, some are expensive, but there is usually always delicious food for all of us in each region and each season."

    The second speaker was Vietnamese historian Mr. Duong Trung Quoc, who explained how, through the ages, Vietnamese cuisine developed a distinct regionality. "Vietnamese cuisine has traditionally differed among three areas that reflect geographical migration to the South as well as the traces of cultural customs from the Red, Ma and Lam Rivers expanding to the south in association with the local cuisines that are strongly affected by the cultural characters of South East Asia. These structural differences are easily recognized in the structure of the meal, through speciality dishes and cooking methods as well as activities related to eating and drinking."


    Delicious Cuisine, Times Three


    Fresh Spring Rolls (Recipe)
    Vietnamese cuisine is generally divided into three types. That of the northern part of the country is influenced by its northern neighbour China, and is generally simpler than elsewhere, with more stir-fries and a greater use of soy sauce and black pepper as seasonings. The north of the country has been historically poorer than elsewhere, but is provided with rice by the Red River delta area around Hanoi.

    Southern cuisine is influenced more by the former colonial power, France, and neighbouring South East Asian nations. It also uses a wider array of ingredients in the form of fish & other seafood and fruit & vegetables provided by the fertile Mekong delta area around the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, and the key seasonings are umami rich nuoc mam, or fermented fish sauce, and chillies.

    The central region offers perhaps the most elaborate cuisine, and is characterized by featuring a large number of small dishes, which in the past was an indicator of wealth. This, along with vibrant colours and rich taste, are indicative of the fact that this area was previously home to the Vietnamese royal court.

    As well as being provided by the extremely popular nuoc mam, and soy sauce in the north, umami also appears in Vietnamese cooking in the form of nuoc dung, or chicken stock, which is made by boiling the meat and bones of chicken over a long period of time to create a stock that is rich in glutamate.


    Natural Goodness


    Ass. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Thi Lam
    Another characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine was emphasized by the third speaker, Professor Nguyen Thi Lam, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Nutrition, who pointed out that it was a particularly healthy cuisine. "Vietnamese dishes are highly appreciated thanks to their balanced combination of reasonable nutrition and healthy elements. Two of the characters of Vietnamese cuisine that are highly appreciated by foreigners are its diversity and the fact that it is simple, pure and close to nature, which are typically Vietnamese characteristics."

    Professor Lam emphasized the importance of a balanced diet, ideally containing 15 different food groups per day, including fruit, vegetables and cereals in order to obtain enough fibre. As part of this, she pointed out that umami has a role to play in encouraging healthy eating, as it can be used to add depth and appeal to dishes without resorting to adding salt or fats, which has health implications, and can stimulate the palate of those who have lost their appetite.


    The Science of Umami


    Dr. Takeshi Kimura


    Mr. Tommy Aoki
    More about the basics of umami was explained by two umami experts from Japan. Dr. Takeshi Kimura, CEO of the International Glutamate Technical Committee, explained some of the basics of umami, and in particular about glutamate, which is one of the major providers of the umami taste. "Glutamate," he explained, "is one of the most abundant amino acids found in nature, and one of the main components of protein ... it is known that proteins themselves do not have taste, but when they are broken down into their building blocks, called amino acids, these amino acids have taste."

    He went on to explain how processes such as aging and fermentation of food cause this breakdown of protein into amino acids, and therefore an increase in free found glutamate and enhanced umami taste, citing examples such as cured ham and of course the native nuoc mam fermented fish sauce. Mr. Tommy Aoki of the Umami Information Center elaborated on this point for the audience, listing some typical umami rich foods. "umami is found in many kinds of natural food (vegetables, meat, seafood), in fermented food (sauces, pastes, spreads), even in beer and other beverages. Umami is present in many parts of world cuisine. Therefore we need to be aware of umami as well as how it impacts our cooking."

    The presence of umami in tomatoes was highlighted by a tasting experiment that took place at the event. The audience was invited to eat some tomato, by chewing it thoroughly and noting the tastes they experienced with care. They first of all noticed sweetness and acidity, but after swallowing, another taste remained subtly on the tongue. That taste was umami.


    Umami in Action

    It was then left to Ms. Vuong Thi Thang, Lecturer and former Dean of the Food Administration Faculty at Hanoi Tourism College, to demonstrate to the audience which native dishes feature umami. She cited dishes such as Pho, a beef noodle soup with a rich, clear broth. This broth is made by boiling beef, and occasionally chicken, bones and meat for several hours, which results in a stock that is rich in glutamate and, consequently, umami. Similarly, bun thang is noodle soup that relies on the quality of its stock, which is generally made using chicken, pork and shrimp. Here, the glutamate of the chicken and inosinate in the shrimp will combine to produce the synergistic effect of umami, resulting in an even tastier stock. The dish also includes nuoc mam fish sauce, and is topped with chicken meat and finely cut omelette, amongst other things.

    Bun rieu, a crabmeat noodle soup, adds even more umami by including tomatoes in the broth, which added to the chicken stock and the crab creates a dish bursting with the fifth taste. Other umami rich dishes cited by Ms. Thang included Bun ca (fish with tamarind noodle soup), Hu tieu (sliced pork and prawn noodle soup) and bun bo hue (beef and pork soup).

    As with so many nations around the world, the Vietnamese have been enjoying umami as an essential part of their cuisine for millennia without necessarily being aware of it or giving it a name. This meeting of minds between experts from Vietnam and elsewhere certainly helped to open the audience's eyes - and taste buds - to the fifth taste.

  • Question & answer session

    Writer Bang Son

    Historian Duong Trung Quoc

    Fresh Spring Rolls

    Ass. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Thi Lam

    Dr. Takeshi Kimura

    Mr. Tommy Aoki

    Lecturer Vuong Thi Thang

    Pho bo (Beef rice noodles)

    Press coverage of the event

  • Writer Bang Son

    Historian Duong Trung Quoc

    Fresh Spring Rolls

    Ass. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Thi Lam

    Dr. Takeshi Kimura

    Mr. Tommy Aoki

    Lecturer Vuong Thi Thang

    Pho bo (Beef rice noodles)

    Press coverage of the event