Harness the Power of Umami in Your Cooking

June 2006

  • Great culinary tips from experts at Polish culinary conference

    Interest in umami seems to be spreading throughout the world! In the wake of the 'New Frontiers of Taste' event at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK earlier in the month (click here for details), June 28 saw another event getting to grips with umami.

    This time the setting was the Fifth International Conference Culinary Arts and Science (ICCAS) held at the Warsaw Agricultural University in Warsaw, Poland, and the keynote speech was given by Dr. Jacqueline Marcus, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Culinary Nutrition Program at Kendall College, Chicago, Illinois, USA. The event also featured a tasting demonstration by ever-popular sake sommeliers Isake, who were also present at the Cheltenham event.

    Dr. Marcus's talk focused on the culinary applications of umami. She provided the audience with a host of mouthwatering ideas to accentuate their own cooking using the power of umami, many of which we summarize here.

    Savouring a Feast of Umami

    Before any of this got underway, however, the 150 attendees were treated to an umami-rich lunch served in the agreeable surroundings of the university courtyard, and in the company of Dr. Marcus. Some of the delights to be found on the menu she created included green bean salad with anchovy and dried shrimp, smoked catfish, grilled white fish with sweet soy sauce, broiled/grilled tomato with Parmesan cheese, celery and walnut salad with creamy dressing, beef steak with lemon and salt, and saute of shiitake mushrooms.

    The theme linking all of these dishes was umami-rich ingredients, further complimented by an array of umami-rich seasonings, for example the sweet soy sauce enhancing the grilled white fish. In some cases, umami-rich ingredients were combined to boost the umami effect, such as the broiled tomato with the Parmesan cheese. The dishes were paired with sake, which due to the umami inherent in the sake further accentuated the delicious tastes. The result was a uniquely memorable lunch that undoubtedly brought home to diners the power of umami.

    Culinary Art of Umami with Dr. Marcus

    As the audience digested their lunch, Dr. Marcus began her lecture. She covered various interesting topics, including the history of umami in cookery, scientific discoveries which have led to a greater understanding of the umami taste, the key differences between the uses of umami in Asian and Western cuisine, and how it is utilized by some of the world's top chefs in their culinary creations. One of the most practical aspects of her talk, however, was when she described umami as a 'secret ingredient' that can be used to enhance dishes in four specific ways.

    The four major applications of umami

    ●Flavour Partner
    You can add umami to a dish to compliment existing flavours. Dr. Marcus cited the example of seafood bisque where the existing umami taste of the seafood could be accentuated by the addition of fortified wine and umami-rich mushrooms.

    ●Flavour Layerer
    The different tastes in a particular food peak at different times, and then combine to provide a unified finish. Umami can enhance this flavour layering process. Dr. Marcus used cocktail sauce as an example here, explaining that while ordinary cocktail sauce may be a combination of tomato products and chilli sauce to provide heat, an umami enhanced version might combine the naturally occurring umami in the tomatoes with the sharpness of some wasabi and umami-rich soy sauce.