The Taste of Manila

January 2008

Stars of the show

  • Report on the Umami Symposium organised by the Philippines' Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), Department of Science and Technology (DOST), was held on 25 January 2008 in Manila's Blue Leaf Events Pavilion.
    The first umami symposium ever to be held in the Philippines saw a high-profile audience of around 71 scientists, nutritionists, chefs and media members come together in Manila's stylish Blue Leaf Events Pavilion. Participants engaged knowledgeably and enthusiastically in the topics discussed, resulting in a stimulating and rewarding seminar for all concerned.

    New Beginnings

    With Professor Celeste C. Tanchoco, Scientist III and Chief Science Research Specialist at the Nutrition Sciences & Technology Division, FNRI, acting as master of ceremonies, the symposium opened with a prayer and the Filipino national anthem, and then an opening greeting from Dr . Mario Capanzana, Director of FNRI, was read out. The FNRI, as explained in the speech, is a government agency concerned with the health and food safety issues affecting citizens of the Philippines, and responsible for carrying out investigations into food quality and composition. The FNRI has come to involve itself with the issues surrounding umami and glutamate, and it is through their positive action, in association with the Umami Information Center (UIC), that the symposium was able to take place successfully.

    A Hot Topic

    Ms. Kumiko Ninomiya, Director of UIC, stepped up to give the first speech of the symposium, introducing the concept and science of umami, and its public image. She mentioned that umami is rapidly becoming a 'hot topic' around the world, showing the audience recent press cuttings from various publications. Ms. Ninomiya also explained how 2008 marked the centenary anniversary of umami's discovery and talked a little about the celebratory events taking place. Her speech was eagerly met by the audience, and there were several questions, focusing on the issue of whether umami was in fact the fifth basic taste or just another flavour. One participant pointed out that all of the four basic tastes had a corresponding area of the tongue where they were more acutely perceived, to which Ms. Ninomiya explained how the umami taste is detected by receptors in the tastebuds, and is thus perceived most acutely at the back of the tongue, where most tastebuds are found.

    Dashi Demonstration

    In order to consolidate everything the audience had just learnt about umami, the next item in the programme was a demonstration of making dashi, the bonito flake and kombu stock at the heart of Japanese cuisine, given by Chef Masumi Tanabe The cooking procedure was projected onto a large screen, so the audience could see with clarity the exact procedure. Ms. Ninomiya provided translation, illuminating the difference between ichiban and niban (number one and number two) dashi. The former she explained, is that made using fresh ingredients, whilst the latter is richer in flavour and is made by simmering the kombu and bonito flakes that have been used to make ichiban dashi.

    Tasting Tinola

    The results were then announced of a tasting session that had earlier taken place with two samples of tinola, a chicken soup with a ginger flavour, as a representative of an umami-rich food substance from traditional Filipino cuisine. The audience had sampled soups A and B, and asked to assess both on various taste criteria, and register their own comments. Sample B, which was tinola with patis (fermented fish sauce), was deemed by general consensus as tasting saltier, meatier and more umami rich than A, which was tinola with salt in the place of patis. It was also found to be generally more appealing. Audience comments were fed back to the audience: whilst A was described as 'bland', 'too simple' and 'like plain chicken broth with salt', B was referred to as 'more meaty', 'richer', 'thicker', 'more mouthful' and 'more likeable'.

    Malinamnam vs Umami

    The comments revealed that the audience had a good grasp of what umami was, and how to describe the taste in the Filipino language. Indeed, there is apparently a word 'malinamnam' in the Filipino language which approximates to umami, different from the word 'masarap', which is the adjective to describe simple good taste or deliciousness. This was something picked up in the next talk, given by culinary researcher, food journalist and cookbook writer Ms. Nancy Reyes-Lumen, who talked a little about the difference between the two words. She explained that whilst not every food which is malinamnam is umami, for example rich dairy products such as butter, everything which is umami is malinamnam.

    'The UM Factor'

    Ms. Nancy Reyes-Lumen's talk, which she entitled " 'The UM Factor' : It's All Over The Filipino Menu" was fascinatingly delivered, and extremely well received by the audience. Talented speaker Ms Reyes-Lumen began by talking about the sound of 'ummmm', a universal expression of satisfaction and pleasure attained through human consumption of food. It is a happy coincidence, she said, that this sound forms the first syllable of 'umami', the universal taste. "Umami," Ms. Reyes-Lumen explained, "is the taste which differentiates food for survival from food for pleasure." This taste, she said, is of vital importance in the Philippines, who are "100% certified foodies". The universal taste of umami has existed in human food since the beginning of civilization, continued Ms Reyes-Lumen, although it had no name, because we first discovered the taste when we suckled on our mothers' milk. She spoke of how she still remembered the delicious taste of that milk.

    'A Fish Culture'

    Ms. Reyes-Lumen then related the taste of umami to Filipino cuisine, 'a fish and rice cuisine'. In the Phillipines, even fish is cooked in fish broth and flavoured with fish sauce. As early as Aboriginal times, she said, eaters were already tasting umami in their food, although it was nameless to them. Pre-colonial banquets would have a myriad of fish and meat dishes brimming with umami on offer. The Spanish colonization of the Philippines brought many changes to the diet, many of which had a corrupting influence on the healthiness of the cuisine, but the single most important culinary inheritance from the Spanish, said Ms. Reyes-Lumen, was that known as Sofrito, a cooking technique by which the "gisa" sauce is made. "Gisa" is made of a simple sauteed blend of garlic, onions and tomatoes which is a crucial ingredient in a whole host of Filipino dishes.

    Food for Foodies

    Ms. Reyes-Lumen also discussed the dish adobo, regarded by many as the Filipino national dish, and a great source of comfort and joy to 'foodie' Filipinos. Adobo is made of meat, usually chicken, pork or both, cooked in a sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, bay leaf and black peppercorns. It is traditionally accompanied by mung bean stew and white rice. Patis, the umami-rich fish sauce whose addition had made the crucial difference between the Tinola soups in the earlier tasting session, was also mentioned. Looking at a chart comparing glutamate levels of various fish sauces, Ms. Reyes Lumen noted that those contained by patis were the third highest. Becoming aware of umami in this way, Ms. Reyes Lumen said, better enables food producers, "to ensure that good quality patis is exported to other countries, so that Filipino food is represented well overseas."

    Tastiness without Guilt

    In her rounding off comments, Ms. Reyes-Lumen suggested that umami is perhaps particularly relevant to the present age, with its rapidly increasing obesity rates and junk food sales, and many people becoming more and more weight-conscious. When Filipino mothers are trying to get children to eat spinach or some other vegetables, she said, they add patis or chicken powder, and the same principle applies to those conscious of their weight. There is no doubt that adding olive oil makes food more savoury, but it also adds hundreds of calories. Umami, however, provides a way to increase the satisfaction we get from food without making it fattening. Umami-rich food is unique, Ms. Reyes-Lumen said, in providing 'tastiness without guilt'.

    Researching Umami

    Ms. Wilma Molano, Supervising Science Research Specialist at the Nutritional Assessment and Monitoring Division of the FNRI, then presented the results of research project entitled 'Consumption of Glutamate Containing Food' conducted by the FNRI and led by Dr. Mario Capanzana. Running through the methodology of the research study, which is comprised of a survey, laboratory study and data analysis, Ms. Molano discussed the consumption levels of glutamates for Filipinos living in two selected study sites identified to represent urban and rural areas. She concluded that, as well as varying according to age and region, the intake of both free glutamates and MSG depends on individual attitudes and beliefs held by the community. Thus, the recommendation was dissemination of correct, up-to-date information to the public about glutamate, so they are better able to make informed decisions.

    Keen Questions

    The symposium was rounded off with a question and answer session. This provoked a great reaction from the audience, showing just how much they had learnt from the talks and how engaged they were with the topics at hand. Topics ranged from whether it was correct to call the alleged negative effect of MSG a fallacy to the umami content of eggs. Finally, a closing speech was read out which declared the seminar to have been most successful, and then the speakers and chefs who had kindly participated in the seminar were presented with Certificates of Participation.

    Food and Nutrition Research Institute(FNRI) :

  • Stars of the show

    Ms. Ninomiya delivering her lecture

    Chef Tanabe making dashi


    Ms. Nancy Reyes-Lumen

    An attentive audience

    Ms. Wilma Molano

    Professor Mario Capanzana

  • Ms. Ninomiya delivering her lecture

    Chef Tanabe making dashi


    Ms. Nancy Reyes-Lumen

    An attentive audience

    Ms. Wilma Molano

    Professor Mario Capanzana