Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton has teamed up with the Embassy of Japan in the UK and the Japanese Culinary Academy by taking part in a panel discussion about umami.
Chaired by Kumiko Ninomiya, director of the Umami Information Centre, the discussion addressed the power of using umami flavours in cooking. Umami is often dubbed "the fifth taste" alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Atherton, founder of the 17-strong, global Social Company restaurant group and whose London flagship is Pollen Street Social, explained that he regularly uses Japanese-style, umami-rich ingredients, such as dashi, a stock often made with dried fish, to intensify the flavours in his food.
He said: "Chefs are always thinking about how to make food taste better. I look to Japan and Asia for inspiration even though I don't [generally] cook Japanese style. It gives us the opportunity to develop dishes that have a much bigger impact on the palate. For example, boiling a potato in dashi rather than water intensifies the flavour and makes it taste more of itself."
It can also help improve flavour without adding heaviness or extra salt, making food healthier, and thereby reducing diners' feeling of being uncomfortably full after a tasting menu, he explained.
He added that his work at the now-closed but legendary Catalan restaurant El Bulli under Ferran AdriÁ¡ had opened his cooking style up to alternative influences and methods to pare back the complexity and fat in dishes without losing flavour.
Speaking of his dish development at Pollen Street Social, Atherton said: "We're always trying to work on dishes to lighten things. In the restaurant I'm currently working on a pumpkin and oxtail dashi. It's about adding bonito [tuna] flakes and using the outer layer of Parmesan skin to infuse it with more umami flavour."
Another example was a dish made with carrots that have been marinated and charcoal-grilled using miso.
Yoshihiro, chef at the three-Michelin-starred Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi and a long-time proponent of the use of umami in food, added: "Miso is a great way of increasing flavour without hugely increasing calories. I've been spreading the benefits of umami for years, and I feel it has a positive effect on mood and taste. It makes you feel good. It's healthier, but also tasty."
Translated as "deliciousness" and "of good taste" in Japanese, umami is found in ingredients such as miso, soy sauce, fermented beans, dried fish, dashi and fish sauce, although it is also present in more "European" ingredients, such as tomatoes, mushrooms and strong cheese.
Ninomiya explained how it is the make-up of the amino acids glutamate and aspartate in umami that characterises its taste. It should coat the tongue, last a while on palate and add extra flavour.
Other well-known chefs to develop dishes based on the umami taste in recent years include Heston Blumenthal, who created a hospital menu in 2013 to encourage elderly patients to eat more.
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