The Tempting Taste of Thailand

May 2007

All the panelists

  • Report on the "Umami: Science and Art of Taste" symposium held in Bangkok, Thailand on 25 January 2007

    Thailand is undoubtedly a country with a cuisine rich in umami. But how aware are its citizens of the concept of the fifth taste? A recent umami symposium aimed to heighten awareness - just in time for a special anniversary.

    Next year, 2008, will be a very special year for umami, because it marks the centenary of the discovery of the taste by Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University. With this in mind, the Umami Information Center is holding a series of events around the world to ensure that as many people as possible know the facts about the fifth taste.


    Cuisine with a long history


    The latest of these took place in Thailand, on 25 January 2007 at Swissotel Le Coancorde Hotel in the country's capital, Bangkok. Attended by an audience of around 250 people made up of chefs, food writers, academics and other culinary opinion leaders, the event featured presentations by a number of leading Thai food experts, all well equipped to explain the importance of umami in Thai cuisine.

    The role of Moderator of the event was filled by Dr. Pojjanee Paniangvait, Director of the Food Science and Technology Association of Thailand (FoSTAT), which co-organized the event along with UIC and the Thai Chefs' Association. Dr. Pojjanee began the event by stating that, "it is our pleasure, as Asian people, that the word 'ramen' is known and accepted worldwide. Now, the word umami, which is another Asian word, is also accepted worldwide as 'the fifth basic taste.'"


    Fully understanding umami

    The event was opened by Ms. Darunee Edwards, President of FoSTAT, who began by setting out the overall aim of the event, saying, "we are aware of the word 'umami', but I believe that few people understand well what it is. So, this is a good chance for us as the food technologists and food experts to understand what umami is, and how to apply this knowledge to the development of Thai food products."


    A diverse cuisine, united by umami

    The first session was led by Dr. Naruemon Nantaragsa, Associate Professor of Ratjabhat Suan Dusit University. Under the heading, "Thai Cuisine: Wisdom & Arts of Cooking", she outlined the fundamentals of Thai food, and the role that umami plays in it. She explained how just as the country of Thailand is divided into four major regions; Central, Northern, Northeastern and Southern, so also is its cuisine.

    Thus, Northern cuisine is generally less spicy than that of the rest of the country, and features a lot of pork, while southern cuisine is characterised by a large variety of seafood, and the inclusion of fiery chillis, tempered by coconut milk. Northeastern cuisine is influenced by the cuisine of neighbouring Laos as well as that of Thailand, with sticky rice served with almost every meal, and soups also featuring prominently. The Central region of the country, which includes the capital Bangkok has, as might be expected, the greatest variety of food, with elements of all regions apparent, and noodle dishes are extremely popular.

    A world famous umami seasoning

    One feature that is constant across the country, however, is the use of the fermented fish sauce, nam-pla, and other fermented fish products, which are the principal source of umami in the country's cuisine and which, in the case of nam-pla at any rate, have become some of the most popular umami rich seasonings in the world.

    The creation of these fermented condiments was, as Dr. Naruemon points out, perhaps accidental. "Thailand's famous seasonings like fish sauce (nam pla) shrimp paste (kapi) and fermented fish (pla ra) all originate from food preservation, and later these foods became the famous seasonings of Thailand, which provide the delicious taste for Thai foods."

    Nam pla is an indispensable basis for a wide range of dishes, from the ubiquitous pad thai noodles that have as many regional variations as there are regions, through curries, stir fried and soups to the all important dipping sauces.


    Finding the fifth taste...

    Umami may be an indispensable part of much Thai cuisine, but can the average Thai diner recognize it as such? As is often the case when introducing the concept of umami, it is useful to allow participants to experience the taste for themselves. In this case, those attending the symposium were invited to try two samples of a traditional Thai chicken porridge (see recipe) known as kao tom kai, one of which was made using water, while the other contained chicken stock, a natural source of umami. This not only demonstrated to participants the power of umami in action, but also the way in which it plays an important part in indigenous cuisine.

    The origin of umami


    The second session was led by Dr. Suvimol Kirtipiboon, Associate Professor at the Department of Food Technology Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University. Her talk, entitled, "Umami: The Origin of Deliciousness" gave the audience a thorough grounding in the basics of umami, and the role of the various umami providers, glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Dr. Suvimol illustrated this with the help of the traditional Japanese soup stock, dashi, which, as she pointed out, led directly to Professor Kikunae Ikeda identifying umami as the taste of glutamate almost 100 years ago.

    The audience was first of all invited to try a dashi made using kombu, the Japanese kelp that is uncommonly rich in glutamate, and then compare it with a dashi made using kombu and katsuobushi, the dried bonito flakes that are a rich source of inosinate. Thus, participants could experience for themselves the synergistic effect produced when two different umami substances are combined, and the delicious, savoury flavour is multiplied.


    Umami: the chef's friend


    The symposium was rounded off by a panel discussion led by the Moderator, Dr. Pojjanee, and featured contributions from Dr. Naruemon, Dr. Suvimol and Mr. Jamnong Nirungsan, President of the Thai Chefs' Association. Mr. Jamnong expressed the importance of a thorough understanding of umami to chefs. "As I am a chef who is a food expert on an experimental basis, I know just what I have to use for cooking to make food delicious without knowing the reason why! So, this knowledge on umami will help me to make delicious food easily by considering the usage of raw materials and seasonings with high glutamate levels."


    Umami past, present and future

    The panel also considered the impact that umami can have on the future development of Thai cuisine, pointing out that more conscious selection of ingredients and seasonings that are high in glutamate can lead to more tasty and satisfying dishes. The point was also raised that by harnessing the umami taste in dishes, it is possible to increase the deliciousness of dishes without resorting to adding fat, sugar or salt, which also enhance palatability, but with potential detrimental effects on health.

    Feedback from participants on the event was on the whole extremely positive, particularly in relation to the fact that it was possible for them to taste for themselves the effect of umami, and therefore aid their understanding. Many also felt that they had gained a good grasp of the role that umami played in their own cuisine, thanks to referral to food and seasonings they were familiar with. Professor Ikeda would surely be proud to know that the taste he named umami was so enthusiastically received in Thailand, almost 100 years on from its discovery.

  • All the panelists

    Dr. Pojjanee

    Ms. Edwards

    Dr. Naruemon

    Dr. Suvimol

    Audience participation

    One of many press coverages

    Steamed sea bass

    Tasting session

    Thai chicken porridge

  • Dr. Pojjanee

    Ms. Edwards

    Dr. Naruemon

    Dr. Suvimol

    Audience participation

    One of many press coverages

    Steamed sea bass

    Tasting session

    Thai chicken porridge