Umami From Down Under

December 2007

A welcoming audience


  • Report on the Umami : Exotic Taste or World Taste? - Seminar, held in the University of Adelaide on 18 October 2007

    Perhaps Australia's most famous gastronomic innovation, Vegemite, is acknowledged as one most umami-rich of the world's condiments, and Australia's cuisine in general shows a high attentiveness to umami, even if it has been an unconscious one until recent times. To celebrate, explore and promote awareness of this aspect of Australian food culture, the Umami Information Center held a seminar as part of the Tasting Australia 2007 festival held in Adelaide.

    Getting a Taste for Australia


    Australia is a country with a unique and remarkable culinary heritage, in which elements of its British ancestryandmulticultural population are fused with its indigenous ingredients. It was in beautiful Adelaide, the capital of the South Australia, that 'Umami - Exotic Taste or World Taste?' took place, as part of the Biannual and extremely successful Adelaide gastronomic event, Tasting Australia.
    The seminar, held in the University of Adelaide's North Terrace Campus as part of the biannual Tasting Australia festival on Thursday 18 October, was a free event attended by an 105-strong audience comprised of students, chefs, food writers, marketing people and scientists. Lasting lasted for two and a half hours; the event was a great success, with all the participants remaining attentive and eager throughout the four lectures and demonstrations.

    Umami for starters


    The opening lecture, given by Director of the Umami Information Center Kumiko Ninomiya, was an informative and comprehensive introduction to umami, and its place in Eastern and Western cuisines. After taking a look at the scientific composition of umami, Kumiko addressed the question posed by the seminar title, telling the audience how it was umami scientist Kikunae Ikeda's taste experiences in Germany which first opened his mind to the idea that there was a fifth taste which cannot be created by combining sweet, salty, bitter and sour tastes. It was during a trip to Germany, where Ikeda ate foods such tomato, cheese, asparagus and certain meats for the first time, that he conceived of the idea of a savoury, meaty taste, and which inspired his research and subsequent discovery of glutamate in Japan's own staple ingredient, kombu (kelp).

    Something to chew on


    Event participants were then each encouraged to experience the taste of umami through sampling a tomato, encouraged to chew at least 30 times in order to fully experience every sensation and taste. The umami taste, Ninomiya explained, is something that most Western people are not accustomed to putting into words, but they are none the less acquainted with. Although the word 'umami' may sound exotic to Westerners, the taste of umami itself is something that they are very familiar with. After all, Kumiko pointed out, we have all been tasting umami since birth, in the form of breast milk, which has a glutamate content almost ten times higher than that of cows' milk.

    A very good influence


    The next item in the evening's programme was a talk entitled 'Influences on Australian Cuisine and Tastes', given by food historian Dr. Barbara Santich, Associate Professor and Program Manager of Le Cordon Bleu Graduate Programme in Gastronomy at the University of Adelaide. In an engaging talk filled with humour and fascinating detail, Barbara looked at how it has been possible for umami to be such a vital part of the Australian diet whilst remaining unacknowledged until relatively recently. She examined the Western fascination with fours, whose origin dates back to the Hippocratic system of medicine from Ancient Greece, in the Fifth Century BC, where the seasons, the body's humours, and other classificatory systems were all divided four-fold. It was inevitable that the tastes, too, should become incorporated into this theoretical model, and, through force of habit rather than fact, we have not been able to shake of this system of classification, until recent years when scientific and anecdotal evidence about umami has become to great to ignore.

    A Meaty Mouthful


    Barbara then talked about umami in Australian food throughout history. For a long period in Australia's history, she explained, the Australian diet consisted largely of meat, with many households eating meat three times a day, to a total of on average over one pound of meat a day per person. This meat would mostly be cooked in a very plain and typically British fashion, either roast or boiled, for plain and simple cooking was not only more practical, but was also considered healthy. Thus it was that umami-rich condiments played a crucial flavour-giving role in the Australian diet. The workshop participants then sampled cold roast lamb with the four condiments common in Australia at the beginning of the previous century: Tomato Ketchup or Tomato Sauce as it is known in Australia, Tomato Chutney, Worcestershire Sauce and Mushroom Ketchup.

    A Dashi-ng Young Chef


    his assistant Junichi Sunaga
    Chef Shingo Suzuki, with his assistant Junichi Sunaga, then stepped up to the microphone, to give a demonstration of how to make the perfect Japanese dashi (kombu and bonito stock). Born to Japanese parents and raised in LA, Shingo lived in Australia while working with his father to create the Sydney and Melbourne Kobe Jones restaurants, before flying to London to set up the third Kobe Jones restaurant, where he still works now as Executive Chef. With such a background, then, it is hardly surprising that he has such a well-rounded grasp of umami from both a Western and a Japanese perspective. He talked us through the correct procedure for making Japanese dashi from kombu and bonito flakes, explaining how even this quintessentially Japanese broth, which may appear 'exotic', can be incorporated to great effect into Western-style dishes. In fact, his own Italian and Japanese fusion pasta salad dish, made with umami-rich ingredients, dashi, tomatoes and parmesan was available for the seminar attendees to sample.

    Good Science


    Shingo also discussed the influence that growing public awareness of umami was having on English culture, explaining how it is helping to push cooks in a more scientific direction, such as that taken by British umami supporter and chef extraordinaire Heston Blumenthal. It is through the works of people like Heston, who often discusses umami-related findings such as those relating to glutamate levels in tomatoes on his popular TV series on BBC2, In Search Of Perfection, that chefs all over Britain are coming to have an understanding of the science behind umami and the role that it plays in the taste experience.

    A Taste To Remember


    The final session of the seminar was given by Dr. Sue Bastian, Lecturer in Oenology and Sensory Studies at the University of Adelaide. Sue gave an overview of the way in which we taste, and the importance of smell conducting an experiment with the participants. where the attendees tasted samples of mystery food substances (candy and pears) with their eyes closed and noses pinched. She then discussed the properties of the various basic tastes, explaining that umami, like bitterness but unlike sweetness or saltiness, is a long-lasting taste, and in order to demonstrate this, orchestrated a comparative tasting exercise using an umami rich fluid and a salt solution.

    Matches Made In Heaven


    The event attendees were then invited to taste a traditional food of Australia's indigenous people. A dukkah made with Australia's natural umami-rich ingredients - the bush tomato, which also included with crushed almonds, sesame seeds and various herbs and spices. The dukkah was served with bread dipped in olive oil. The workshop concluded with a tasting session looking at wine and cheese matching. The attendees put a sample of well-matched wine and cheese in their mouth at the same time, and were encouraged to share their impressions about the balance of tastes. Sue explained to the workshop attendees the factors determining the felicity of certain wine and cheese pairings, in particular the combination of full bodied wines like the fruity Australian Cabernets with creamy, high-fat cheeses like sheep cheeses, and more acidic wines like Chianti with fully-matured and high-glutamate cheeses such as Parmiggiano Reggiano.

    Needless to say, with heads full of new information and stomachs full of wine, cheese and Shingo's special dashi and tomato pasta, the event attendees went home with big umami-smiles on their faces.

    Tasting Australia: http://www.tasting-australia.com.au/
    Dr. Barbara Santich: http://www.gastronomy.adelaide.edu.au/staff/
    Dr. Sue Bastian: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/directory/sue.bastian
    Umami - Exotic or World Taste?: http://www.umami.org.au/

  • A welcoming audience

    University of Adelaide's Equinox Room

    Umami-rich Tomatoes

    Tasting session

    Dr. Barbara Santich

    Chef Shingo Suzuki (left) and his assistant Junichi Sunaga

    Shingo's umami-rich pasta salad

    Sensory experiments

    Dr. Sue Bastian

    Australian sauces sampled by event participants

  • University of Adelaide's Equinox Room

    Umami-rich Tomatoes

    Tasting session

    Dr. Barbara Santich

    Chef Shingo Suzuki (left) and his assistant Junichi Sunaga

    Shingo's umami-rich pasta salad

    Sensory experiments

    Dr. Sue Bastian

    Australian sauces sampled by event participants