Add Some Belacan To Your Life

August 2007

Tasting session

  • REPORT on the Umami Symposim held at the Putra University of Malaysia (UPM), Kuala Lumpur on 24 August 2007

    Each country in the world has its own particular ingredient or condiment that epitomizes umami. In Japan it is dashi stock, in the USA, tomato ketchup. In Malaysia, meanwhile, it is belacan: a distinctive seasoning that was the focus of a recent seminar in the country.

    The Umami Information Center (UIC), dedicated as it is to promoting awareness of umami all round the world, recently held a seminar in conjunction with the Putra University of Malaysia or UPM to heighten awareness of the fifth taste among food experts in the country.

    An appetite for umami knowledge

    The event, which took place at the university's campus in the capital Kuala Lumpur, was attended by over 220 delegates from food science nutrition backgrounds, including students of UPM and other universities. All appeared to find the event most useful and interesting, with many providing positive feedback.

    The event was opened by Professor Dr. Russly bin Abdul Rahman, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Food Science & Technology at the university, who admitted that, "I had not heard the term umami before, and at the moment I still don't quite understand it, but I'm sure I will after today." He said he felt that umami in Malaysian cuisine was best exemplified by belacan, a fermented shrimp paste of which he said, "I don't know how to describe the taste. The best thing is for you to try it for yourself."

    Umami for starters...

    The first of the keynote speakers, UIC Director Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya, gave the audience a good grounding in the basics of umami, emphasizing the fact that although it was discovered in Japan and is expressed using a name with a Japanese origin, umami is in fact a universal taste that is present in all cuisines throughout the world.

    This message was backed up by a recording of a Japanese television programme on umami called The Fifth Taste that has been translated into English and was shown to the audience. The programme, which featured contributions from eminent chefs and food scientists around the world, explained the important role that umami plays in food, and how it can be exploited to make food more delicious. The audience was also given an opportunity to experience the effect of umami for themselves with a tasting session featuring two samples of a soup, one of which had umami seasoning added and reduced salt levels. Participants were asked to guess which was which, and most did so correctly. Moreover, participants were asked to choose the soup they preferred after soup tasting. The result showed that 88% of participants preferred soup with glutamate added and less table salt.

    A taste of tomato...

    One aspect of umami that particularly excited the delegates was a recent research paper carried out by well-known UK chef Heston Blumenthal, in association with scientists at the country's Reading University and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. He investigated the difference in the levels of umami between the flesh of tomatoes and the pulp at the centre of the fruit than contains the seeds. He found that it was in fact this pulp, which is often discarded by chefs, that offers higher levels of umami. This recent discovery could have an effect on chefs around the world

    The main dish: belacan

    In Malaysia, however, the ingredient that is perhaps the most important source of umami is belacan, an extremely popular condiment that is not only used in a vast range of Malaysian cookery, but is also viewed by many as part of the nation's cultural heritage. Some even say that having a taste for belacan is part of what makes someone Malaysian.

    It is a fermented shrimp paste, not dissimilar to the Thai paste called kapi that was discussed at UIC's recent event in Bangkok, and takes the form of a fairly dry cake with a pungent aroma and intense, savoury flavour. Traditionally, it is made using a very small kind of shrimp, which are drained and salted before being left to ferment and dry in the sun. They are then mashed together to form a paste and fermented again. This process is repeated once more before the paste is formed into blocks, rather like pats of butter, which are then sold. Altogether the process takes 3-4 days. The paste features in dipping sauces, fried chicken, satay sauce and many more dishes.

    At the event, the importance of belacan in Malaysian cuisine and its umami qualities were expounded by Dr. Muhammad Shahrim Abdul Karim of UPM's Food Science and Technology faculty. Dr. Shahrim discussed the history of the seasoning, explaining how it originally developed as a means for fishermen to preserve their catch, as well as touching on how it is made and the ways in which it can be used in cooking, either as it is straight from the packet or roasted. Dr. Shahrim also explained why the condiment is umami rich, namely due to the fact that the protein in the shrimps is broken down by fermentation, releasing a number of amino acids including glutamate, which is one of the main sources of the fifth taste.

    Cooking up a storm

    At this event, the seasoning was used in a delicious dish of pan-fried sea bass with belacan salsa, created by Mr. Abu Bakar, Executive Chef of the Hotel Equatorial in Kuala Lumpur. Chef Abu also demonstrated the creation of the traditional Japanese umami rich stock dashi, giving the audience an insight into how to make the most of the fifth taste both in indigenous cuisine and Japanese dishes.

    Although awareness of the term umami is still not widespread in Malaysia, like so many other nations around the world its cuisine has a rich tradition of enhancing food with the fifth taste, in particular belacan. So delicious is it that it is now becoming available and is enjoyed throughout the world. It is surely an umami experience that's worth tracking down...

    Putra University of Malaysia :

  • Tasting session

    Event participants

    Ms Ninomiya

    Belacan in several different forms

    Shrimps being dried to make belacan

    Dr. Shahrim

    Dashi demonstration by chef Abu

  • Event participants

    Ms Ninomiya

    Belacan in several different forms

    Shrimps being dried to make belacan

    Dr. Shahrim

    Dashi demonstration by chef Abu