dec05 cheltenham report ichiro kubota

December 2005

Ichiro Kubota

  • Report 'New Frontiers of Taste' vol.4
    - Ichiro Kubota

    Umami Made Simple
    The 'New Frontiers of Taste' event held earlier this year in Cheltenham, UK (click here for full details) featured a number of speakers who were all experts in their own field, and who knew a fair amount about umami. None of the others, however, had grown up with such a keen appreciation of the nature of the fifth taste as Ichiro Kubota, executive head chef of Umu restaurant in London.

    Ichiro's father schooled him from an early age in the finer points of the Kyoto school of Japanese cuisine, which places umami at the heart of its philosophy. Ichiro has followed in his father's footsteps and now practices this precise and delicate style of cookery at his prestigious London restaurant.

    Lost in Translation

    At the start of the Cheltenham event, Professor Edmund T. Rolls of Oxford University had described the effects of umami from a scientist's point of view. In case this scientific explanation was a little too complex for some, Ichiro stated at the start of his talk that, "I'm here to make it easy for people to understand what the umami taste is ."

    He acknowledged that although umami was generally understood by people in Japan, the fact that it was defined by a Japanese word may act as a barrier to understanding for people from other countries, as the term is not easily translated into other languages. His aim was therefore not to get caught up in the definition of umami, but instead to demonstrate to the audience the effect the taste can have, and how this can be achieved.

    We Love Umami

    A central tenant of the Kyoto school of cookery is the assertion that, " umami is something agreeable and suitable to the human body ", and is therefore employed to ensure dishes are tasty and satisfying to diners. Ichiro pointedout that this is true the world over, even in countries where umami is not widely acknowledged. " Everyone can taste umami, but they don't recognize it as such. "

    This 'agreeable' quality of umami is developed very early in life. It is generally agreed that human breast milk contains a high concentration of umami. Ichiro explained that this exposure to umami early in life is important in the development of the human palate, and in deciding which tastes we find pleasant and unpleasant. The same is true at the weaning stage, when babies cannot consume strong-flavoured foods, such as those which are excessively sweet or salty, but umami is quite palatable.

    Umami in its Purest Form

    Perhaps the purest and simplest expression of the umami flavour in Kyoto style cooking, Japanese cuisine and, in fact, anywhere in the world, is the traditional dashi stock. This deceptively straightforward recipe is, according to Ichiro, " easy to explain, but really difficult to do. " This is because the various delicate flavours used must act together in perfect harmony. As Ichiro puts it, " umami is balance; always a balance. Of salty and sweet, sweet and bitter, and sweet and sour. "

    Ichiro only uses the finest ingredients to make his stock, underlining its position as one of the most important building blocks in his cuisine. For example, he does not use any old shiitake mushrooms, but the donko shiitake variety from Oita prefecture, which grows slowly, and therefore has a deeper flavour. Similarly, he uses a particular breed of kombu seaweed, called rishiri, which has a firmer texture, and is therefore less likely to disintegrate in the water, which would impair the flavour.

    To ensure that flavours are neither too strong nor too weak, Ichiro will leave the kombu seaweed to soak overnight, and then heat to around 70 degrees Celsius, for around one hour (depending on the quality of the kombu and the season). Bonito flakes are added to the stock in small amounts, to prevent them from breaking and affecting the colour. As you can see, Ichiro takes his stock seriously, and the resulting dishes he creates with it carry on the proud heritage of the Kyoto cuisine tradition, with the umami taste at their heart.

    The Umami Experience

    Perhaps the most striking expression of umami offered by Ichiro, however, was the tasting sample he offered the audience. He invited them to season a piece of cucumber with some bonito flakes and ponzu , which is a blend of soy sauce and other flavourings including bonito and kombu stock and lemon juice. As he pointed out to the audience, " you can taste the cucumber itself, but you can also taste the acidity, sweetness and some salt ... the ponzu contains everything: the seaweed, the bonito stock and [fermented] soya beans in one sauce. This is umami for me. " And as a result of this tasting demonstration, the combined flavours of ponzu and bonito flakes epitomised umami for all the participants at the 'New Frontiers of Taste' event, giving them a valuable insight into the fifth taste.

    Umu restaurant:

  • Ichiro Kubota

    Dashi demonstration

    Tasting 'bento box'

  • Dashi demonstration

    Tasting 'bento box'