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The Flavour of Japan

In part two of this three part series, Helen Best-Shaw discovers Umani

Written by . Published on September 16th 2011.

The Flavour of Japan

UMAMI has been part of Japanese vocabulary for years, it roughly translates to 'deliciousness' and its savoury flavour is also known as the fifth taste (the other tastes are bitter, sweet, sour and salty).  

Umami was first properly identified in 1908 when Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, realised that the umami flavour in his dish of dashi (seaweed broth) was down to the high natural presence of the amino acid glutamate. Koji, the fungus used to ferment many Japanese foods also produces glutamate. umami was recognised as being the term to describe the flavour of glutamate in 1985. Now umami is widely recognised as being the fifth taste.

When foods containing ribonucleotides, which also have an umami taste, are paired with those containing glutamate, the molecules work together and the resultant umami 'hit' is far greater than the combined taste in each separate food. Many of the world's great food pairings take advantage of this synergy. The Japanese combine glutamate rich seaweed with ribonucleotide containing shiitake mushrooms. A sauce containing Parmesan, mushrooms and tomatoes will have more umami than the ingredients served separately.


UmeboshiUmeboshiLeft to Right: Whole umeboshi, umeboshi purée, ume plum seasoning.

Pickles, or tsukemono, are popular in Japan.   The Japanese pickle is usually a salt pickle as opposed to the Western, vinegar-based pickle. Pickles are served as a side dish, as snacks or with rice. Many vegetables are pickled including dakion (Japanese radish), cucumber, turnip and Chinese cabbage.

One popular tsukemono is umeboshi, made from ume plums which  are closely related to the apricot. The Ume plums are picked before they are ripe, brined, dried and then returning to the brine. The red colour comes from the addition of red shiso leaves. 

Shiso is is a member of the mint family, with leaves that look like stinging nettles.  It is rich in minerals and vitamins, is anti-inflammatory and is commonly used in traditional medicine.

The pickled ume plum is both exceedingly sour and salty, and reputed to have excellent medicinal qualities, many traditional Japanese people will start each day with a ume plum or two. The purée can be used in dips, spreads and dressings, and the seasoning is an excellent alternative to vinegar.

Sea Vegetables

Sea VegetablesSea VegetablesClockwise from top left: Sea Salad, Nori Sprinkles, Kombu, Dried Dakion (Japanese Radish)

Sea vegetables have been consumed the world over for millennia. Most meals in Japan will typically contain some sort of seaweed. Seaweed is rich in glutamate giving it its characteristic umami taste.

The sea salad pictured contains dulse, sea lettuce and nori and can be used as a garnish, as a base of a stock, or added to soups dressings or stews. Sheets of dried nori are used to wrap sushi or is crumbled and used as a garnish.   

Sheets of dried tougher kombu (or edible kelp) are simmered in water as a base for dashi, a stock central to Japanese cooking and the base of miso soup. Cooking beans with kombu is said to make the  more digestible.

FurikakeFurikakeFurikake is a seasoning made from sesame seeds, nori and shiso commonly used to sprinkle on rice, stir fries and potatoes.  

For more information on sea vegetables, Clearspring, producers of traditional Japanese foods have an excellent guide. [http://www.clearspring.co.uk/japanese/edible_seaweed]

Dakion (also pictured in the seaweed photo) which roughly translates to 'great root', is a type of radish, also known in Britain by its Indian name, mooli. Its enzymes help to digest fats, so it is frequently served with oily foods.     

Follow Helen Best-Shaw on Twitter:  @fussfreeflavour

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