No Longer a Foreign Word in Peru

December 2005

Dashi demonstration by Toshiro

  • Umami - No Longer a Foreign Word in Peru

    Report of the 'Taste Consciousness: Umami' workshop held in the Hotel Melia Lima, Peru on 5 August 2005

    Umami has not traditionally been a commonly used word in Peru, but a considerable step towards rectifying this was taken recently as the result of a workshop on the topic of the fifth taste and molecular gastronomy in general.

    A Meeting of Great Minds

    The 32 attendees were made up of representatives of culinary art schools, restaurants and food-related industries, as well as researchers, journalists and scientists. In other words, people ideally placed to share knowledge among food professionals and members of the public across the country and beyond.

    The success of the event was boosted greatly thank to the eclectic and eminent group of panellists assembled. The panel was chaired by Dr. Teresa Blanco, Director of the Nutrition Program of the Peruvian University of Applied Sciences , and award-winning author of health and nutrition books. She was joined by Kumiko Ninomiya of the Umami Information Center (Japan), Michael Koziol PhD., Dean of the School of Agriculture, Foods and Nutrition of San Francisco de Quito University in Ecuador, Gary K. Beauchamp PhD., Director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and John D. Fernstrom PhD.,

    Research Director of the UPMC Health System Weight Management Center and Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The final member of the panel was Toshiro Konishi, of the famous Toshiro´s Sushi Bar in Lima; a Japanese restaurateur who has lived in Peru for 30 years, and who is well known in his adopted homeland and neighbouring countries as a purveyor of Japanese delicacies as well as Peruvian/Andean-Japanese fusion cuisine. ( : guide to restaurants / Japanese)

    Science - An Essential Ingredient of Food
    The aim of the event was twofold: firstly, to explain a bit about molecular gastronomy, and how all foods can be analysed scientifically to gain a greater understanding of why they taste as they do, and secondly, to explore the effect that umami can have on a dish, and how to achieve it.

    The first point was covered expertly by Dr. Blanco, who explained that all cooking involves chemistry and physics, even though ordinary people and even professional chefs might not give this any consideration. She pointed out that "everyone thinks that food only has proteins, carbohydrates, fat water and minerals, [but each food] is made up of anywhere between 200 and 250 molecules. For example the strawberry has 312 molecules." Just because we discuss food in a scientific context does not mean it is artificial or altered in any way ? completely natural foods may also be examined scientifically.

    This theme was also taken up by Dr. Fernstorm, who mentioned that some people are put off by the combination of chemistry and food. In fact chemistry is itself the study of natural phenomena, and looking at food this way, in other words molecular gastronomy, can in fact offer new ways to enjoy food that do not involve modifying food or stopping it being natural.

    Discovering Umami

    In 1908, a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda identified glutamate as a substance that occurs naturally in many foods, including ripe vegetables, aged cheeses and cured or dried meats.

    Dr. Koziol pointed out to the audience that the umami taste was naturally occurring in foods such as Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and cured ham, and encouraged them to try these foods and identify the taste. Fellow panellist Toshiro Konishi demonstrated that even if we have not always understood the science, human beings have always instinctively preferred foods high in umami.He prepared two traditional Japanese stocks

    called dashi, made from dried bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms. These have both been made in Japan for centuries, and are high in naturally occurring umami. As Toshiro explained, "when you are eating, you do not imagine or think about what your food contains, you are just enjoying the taste which is umami."

    The Science of Taste

    Science not only tells us which foods contain certain properties, it also helps us to understand how our body recognizes and processes tastes. For example, Dr. Beauchamp told the audience how taste was not the only sense used in enjoying food, and that the smell of a particular food, as well as the ambience in which it is consumed, plays an important role in how we perceive it. He illustrated this by asking the audience to hold their nose while eating a jellybean, and then to release their nose and eat the jellybean normally, and not e how much tastier it was because the sense of smell was being employed

    Dr. Blanco also pointed out that, "inside the mouth we have taste receptors that make it possible for the brain to identify different tastes." It was the discovery of two taste receptors which specifically recognized umami that led to scientists coming to the conclusion that it was one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

    Spreading the Word

    This workshop, however, generated a good deal of publicity. On the back of their appearance on the panel, both Dr. Blanco and Toshiro Konishi were invited to appear on the 'Divine Food' programme, which is broadcast on Peru's most listened to radio station. Here, they were able to show the programme's host, the renowned Peruvian journalist and gastronome Raul Vargas, the benefits of the fifth taste. The topic was also covered by one of Peru's largest circulated magazines, 'Caretas'.

    In addition, the directors of some of Peru's leading cookery schools, including Le Cordon Bleu Peru, who were present at the event, have said that they will now make a conscious effort to teach students about the properties of umami, and how it can be used to benefit dishes. With culinary opinion formers such as these spreading the word, surely it cannot be long before many people in Peru will be experiencing the fifth taste for themselves?

  • Dashi demonstration by Toshiro


    Dr. Blanco

    Dr. Beauchamp

    Taste test

  • Tasting

    Dr. Blanco

    Dr. Beauchamp

    Taste test