It's umami, but not as we know it

June 2005

  • Shanghai Blues

    There is no doubt that Chinese cuisine is becoming increasingly hip at the moment, in the UK and elsewhere, and in the words of one restaurant critic, "London is in the throes of a ... dim sum explosion." One of the brightest stars in this so-called explosion is Hong Qiu Feng, Executive Head Chef of the Shanghai Blues restaurant. In the elegant surroundings of the former St. Giles Library in London's Holborn district, with it's skillful blend of modern and oriental design, and atmospheric lighting, Hong Qiu Feng brings his unique take on Shanghai cuisine to British diners.

    Moreover, while Hong Qiu Feng himself may not use the term umami, looking at some of the signature dishes of Shanghai Blues and talking to the man himself about the philosophy behind his cooking, it is clear that he is keenly aware of the power of the fifth taste, and exploits it skillfully in his dishes.

    One of the central pillars of his cooking is the importance of a flavoursome stock made with natural ingredients, and more often than not this involves umami. He spends considerable time each day making either chicken or seafood stock, the latter using prawns and other shellfish. Both of these stocks are full of natural glutamate and, as a result, umami. Such is the importance of the stock to his cooking, that the dishes he might cook on a particular occasion will depend to some extent on what kind of stock he has at his disposal.

    Hong Qiu Feng also takes time to draw the maximum flavour from his ingredients. One such ingredient is the prized shellfish abalone, bursting with natural umami, which is not available fresh in the UK. Instead Hong Qiu Feng has dried abalone imported from China, and then reconstitutes it in an exacting fashion, often over a number of days, to ensure the full, delicate flavour is not only preserved but accentuated. He notes philosophically that, "it takes 5 minutes to eat, and 2 days to prepare."

    The cuisine of the Shanghai area, which is Hong Qiu Feng's speciality, is characterized by being stronger in flavour than the slightly blander cooking of other areas of China. He points out that it employs a lot of sweet flavours, apparently, "to compensate for the fact that the air around the port of Shanghai is so salty." While this idea itself may need to be taken with a pinch of salt, there is little doubt that the air in the kitchens of the Shanghai Blues restaurant is rich with an abundance of flavours, and that prominent among them is umami.

    Shanghai Blues
    193-197 High Holborn
    London WC1V 7BD
    United Kingdom
    Tel. +44 (0) 20-7404-1668/9