The Umami of Dashi

A bowl of Sukiyaki

In recent years, much has been said about the presence of a fifth taste. No longer was food described as just salty, sweet, sour or bitter, it is now proven that there is a mysterious fifth taste – the taste loosely called as “savory” or more specifically called umami. Umami is a term derived from the Japanese word for “delicious”.
My tastebuds are drawn more to umami-rich food. For a while I thought I was just being too picky because dishes that otherwise tasted delicious to most people seemed “lacking” in satisfaction to me.
I grew up in a household where MSG did not have a bad rap for its anecdotal side effects, so the food I ate was highly savory. Even when the 2004 version of Harold Mc Gee’s “On Food and Cooking” said: “MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people even in large amounts”, the stigma remains. As more restaurants quit using MSG, the taste of the savory diminished and the sugar and cloying sauces took over.

I myself do not use MSG. I admit having a packet of it in my pantry for emergency purposes, but I’ve used it maybe once or twice in the past 5 years. Most of the seasoning sauces I use have enough of the stuff anyway. As I’ve found out in my quest for the savory, there are other ingredients that lends itself to the fifth taste.

For example: soy sauce.

The “Hungry” Hubby and I have had long standing arguments about soy sauce. I simply love the stuff and possess different grades: thick, thin, mushroom-flavored (my favorite), seasoning etc. stashed away in my pantry. But HH looks at it in a distorted way to the point of saying that it bastardizes food and is a way to mask bad taste. He has since shut-up when I pointed out David Lebovitz post about roast chicken and how even French chefs use it as a secret ingredient. Let’s put it this way: if he argues with me some more, he can cook his own food. ;)

Even if I am Chinese, I consider Japanese food as my favorite cuisine, so much so that I was beginning to think that I was Japanese in a previous life. I’ve since fully embraced the reason…


In the Times Online article, “Umami: The mystery of the fifth taste”, I’ve discovered that there are now umami summits where Japanese chefs come and teach top chefs how to use dashi – the key that unlocks the fifth taste of umami.
Renowned chef, Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck) had used the principle for years to balance the flavor of his dishes.

Thankfully, for HH’s sake, parmesan cheese is second to Kombu ( the seaweed used for dashi) in glutamate levels that are responsible for the taste of umami.

I feel vindicated too, for my love of ketchup and soy sauce. Here is a list of the big 10 of y-umaminess with italic side comments from yours truly.

1. Tomatoes (sun-dried and ketchup) => rah! rah! for ketchup, baby!
2. Wild mushrooms (dried shitake) => I win another argument with HH because I prefer dried shitake over the fresh ones.
3. Rich bouillons => wonder how Ruhlman feels about this because I’m about to come out of the closet and yell “I love Knorr chicken bouillons!”
4. Cured and smoked meats
5. Cheese (Parmesan and ripe blue cheese) => don’t like blue cheese but maybe because I’ve been buying the wrong kind.
6. Fish and shellfish (anchovies and tuna) => yes! Score again for the anchovies, ya honey? ;)
7. seaweed
8. soy sauce => ‘nuff said
9. oriental fish sauce => this is another secret ingredient that transcends Southeast Asian cuisine. But ‘nuff said about this too, or HH will think I made this list up.
10. Sake

Bonito flakes and kombu – the components of dashi

In my “umami” analysis I know now why Sukiyaki has always been one of my favorite Japanese dishes. Judging from its components, it scores four from the umami-rich list: shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, seaweed and fish (bonito flakes, the latter two combines to form dashi).

Pick up any Japanese cookbook and you will see that dashi is the cornerstone that builds the legend of this cuisine. Dashi is easier to make than you think. It’s the fastest stock to cook but spoils rather easily. I’ve never tried freezing dashi or used dashi-no-moto (instant dashi) which most homemakers in Japan use. I’ve always read that dashi from scratch is still the best.

My recipe for dashi comes from Japanese Cooking, a simple art. And I must commend Marc of Norecipes for a sukiyaki recipe that was spot on compared to the best sukiyaki I’ve tasted in Manila.

Shirataki noodles – wonder diet food?

I’m also loving the use of fiber-rich, low-calorie (yes, close to zero) shirataki noodles. It is tasteless by itself but can be flavored by steeping it in the sukiyaki base. I parboiled the noodles for two minutes before using.

Ingredients, after simmered in sukiyaki stock

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