Umami goes Brazilian

December 2007

Workshop Participants

  • Report on the Educational Umami Events held as part of I CONAG in Recife, Brazil from the 8 to 11 of October.

    It is difficult to imagine a cuisine more vibrant than that of Brazil. With all its meat, tomato, cheese and eggs, it will come as no surprise to learn that Brazilian food is unusually high in umami. To celebrate this fact, the Umami Information Center returned to Brazil in October, this time to Recife, in order to participate in the ICONAG grand gastronomic seminar.

    A Recife For Success



    I CONAG, which stands for I Congresso Nacional De Gastronomia (National Congress of Gastronomy), was held in the Mar Hotel in the Brazilian city of Recife, which is capital of the Pernambuco region. Recife is a major port on the Atlantic Ocean where the two rivers Beberibe and Capibaribe conjoin, which flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries exporting sugar. Now a colourful and cultural city, known as the Brazilian Venice for its abundance of bridges and waterways, with a unique style of cuisine entirely different from that such as can be found in the main Brazilian city Sao Paolo, Recife was a perfect setting for I CONAG, a four day long programme of lectures and workshops focusing on various aspects of national and international gastronomy attended by 700 people such as chefs, culinary experts, gastronomy professors and students, and journalists. It was within this exciting schedule of events that the Umami Information Center organized three events introducing, discussing and reviewing the culinary role of umami, in particular its contribution to the Brazilian food culture; a lecture and a demonstration by Brazilian cuisine specialist, Mara Salles, and a lecture from the director of the Umami Information Center, Kumiko Ninomiya.

    Uncovering Umami



    The first event in the umami-related programme, taking place on Wednesday 10 October from 10.20 until 12 o'clock, was a cooking demonstration by Mara Salles, professor at Anhembi Morumbi University and owner and chef of the Brazilian restaurant Tordesilhas, which has won the award for Best Brazilian Restaurant for seven years running. In front of an audience of 60 people, Mara prepared her own original umami-rich dish, 'Aparecidinho', which means 'uncovered beef' in Portuguese. The dish takes its inspiration from a popular Pernambuco dish, Escondidinho ('hidden beef'), which is made with manioc puree. The manioc plant, or the cassava or yucca plant as it is sometimes known, a woody shrub native to South America, is heavily featured in Brazilian cuisine, and is in fact the third largest source of carbohydrates for human food in the world. Escondidinho hides its umami rich beef jerky in the puree of this manioc puree, and the dish is then topped with a cheese gratin. In Salles' creative reinvention of this dish, as the name indicates, the beef jerky is uncovered, and placed, together with tomato and cheese, on top of the manioc puree.

    A fantastic discovery



    At two o'clock, Mara presented her 'Workshop on Umami in Brazilian Gastronomy' to 180 enthusiastic attendees. In an honest and engaging talk accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, she gave her thoughts on umami and its impact on her life and career as a chef. She explained that when she first heard of umami, she thought the word was 'weird', and that it was far too scientific an issue to concern an intuitive chef like herself. It was only, Mara said, when she was invited to cook an umami-rich Brazilian dish at the First Symposium of Umami held in Sao Paolo in 2006 that she began to research umami and discover its true significance. She said that she was amazed to discover how umami was a taste she was well acquainted with since childhood from her Brazilian diet: from the tomatoes in her mother's stews to the fresh palm extracted by her father at the farm where she was born. In fact, Mara related that because her mother could not afford meat every day, she would recreate an equally umami-rich substitute out of aubergine topped with tomato and cheese. It is this taste, she explained, which comes to play a vital role in the mental machinations of a chef; any chef committed to making savoury dishes, she said, will sometimes feel an irrational distress at the weak taste in their creations. Although this mysterious 'lack' is often not given a name, said Mara, what is actually missing in these cases is umami.

    An Umami Cuisine

    Salles then looked at umami and how it applies directly to the Brazilian eating culture, where the important values are energy, taste, and food - in short, she says, an umami cuisine. She considered the role of dried meat such as jerky, originally invented as a curing method in the absence of refrigerators, but now a firm favourite especially in these Northeastern parts, where it is often preferred over the fresh meat that is now available. Mara explains how some personal research has explained why this is the case; after she visits the bododromo, a complex of restaurants serving goats' meat, she learns that the salted goat meat is placed over wire-netted kiosks. As the meat dehydrates, the glutamate content rises, making them more umami-rich, and thus more delicious.

    Reaching a Fine Balance


    Finally, Mara discusses the place of umami within taste and meal-creation as a whole. Recognising its importance, she says, does not always mean trying to maximise the umami content of every single ingredient in a dish; tastes and textures must be balanced. Originally, she explained, she had made her demonstrated 'aparecidinho' dish with parmesan cheese, umami super source, but the blend had been unsuccessful, resulting in something more similar to bechamel sauce than to delicious manioc cream. The eventual product, where the lighter coalho cheese was substituted for the parmesan, was a far more effective dish, where the umami flavours from the beef and the tomato were far better showcased.


    Back to Umami Basics

    Thursday morning saw Kumiko Ninomiya giving her lecture entitled 'Molecular Gastronomy, Exploring Umami Taste: A universal taste in world cuisine. ' Despite the prevalence of umami in Brazilian cuisine and traditional dishes, such as Mara's demonstrated dish and even Brazil's national dish feijoada, which is a hearty stew of beans, pork and beef, common knowledge about umami is relatively slim. However, with five hundred attending Kumiko's lecture, there were obviously many who were keen to listen to Kumiko's introductory yet informative explanation of umami, its scientific structure and its relevance to taste and the culinary arts the world over. She explained how, although the name umami may make the phenomenon seem far-off, exotic and even perhaps irrelevant, umami is in fact a taste which everybody is familiar with from birth, and moreover, which we learn to cook with, even if we are unaware of its existence and scientific basis in the occurrence of glutamate, guanylate and inosinate. There is surely no better example of this unconscious gravitation towards umami-rich food than the Brazilian cuisine itself. What can be done from now on in such cuisines, when knowledge of umami becomes commonplace, remains to be seen...

    ICONAG: http://www.factos.com.br/conag/programa.html (Portuguese only)
    Anhembi Morumbi University: http://portal.anhembi.br/ (Portuguese only)
    Mara Salles' Restaurant: http://www.tordesilhas.com (Portuguese only)

  • Workshop Participants

    Flavour Experimentation

    Mara preparing her dish

    Folder distributed to Participants

    Mara Lecturing

    Aparecidinho

    Ms Ninomiya's lecture

  • Flavour Experimentation

    Mara preparing her dish

    Folder distributed to Participants

    Mara Lecturing

    Aparecidinho

    Ms Ninomiya's lecture