It was surprising to me that some Japanese people do not know a lot about umami. There are sometimes also confusing accounts of umami. For example, I have always been puzzled by the explanation given in Jiro Dreams of Sushi by Yoshikazu, Jiro’s son. Yoshikazu explains that umami is like the feeling of “Ahhhh!” when drinking a cold beer or taking a warm bath. I am not sure if this is a profound realization or an oversimplification.
In my experience, you are most likely to understand umami if you taste a clear soup at a high-end kaiseki restaurant. Armed with that pure experience of umami, you will then, over time and with experience, be able to recognize it in other foods, where it is more subtle. For example, umami or the savory flavor can be found in varying degrees in dried mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and dry-cured ham. In that regard, it is not unique to Japanese food. You can even taste umami in some whisky (for example, Mortlach).
I am reproducing below an extract from the Japanese Culinary Academy’s book Flavor and Seasonings: Dashi, Umami and Fermented Foods (ISBN 978-4-908325-04-5). There is a lot more to know about umami, including the synergies between inosinic acid (meat and fish) and guanylic acid (dried mushrooms), which when present with glutamic acid, can greatly increase the umami taste experience:
“The level of umami flavor expressed in various kinds of foods is not something that can be indicated on a label; it depends on the experience and alchemy of the cook. Judging the amount of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, and bitterness in ingredients is relatively easy for most people, but to evaluate umami, it is very important to train oneself by experiencing both flavor on the tongue and something called mouthfeel.
Umami is a taste that lingers longer on the palate than sweetness or sourness and that spreads over the entire tongue. After thoroughly chewing different varieties of tomatoes, one will find that with some tomatoes the taste sensation seems to cover the entire tongue and linger as an aftertaste, even after swallowing. Other tomatoes taste distinctly sweet or tart, but after the sensation of those tastes is gone there is no lingering aftertaste. The tongue-coating sensation, which lingers as an aftertaste, is umami.”
I recommend this book for those who want to learn more about Japanese food. For example, the book discusses the different types of kombu and their use, between Rishiri kombu (refined and clear dashi, favored in Kyoto), Makombu (favored in Osaka, makes a dashi with a mild sweetness), Rausu kombo (for kobujime), or Hidaka kombu (used when kombu is an element of a dish, such as kobumaki).
The only true voyage of discovery would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.
Matsukawa (revisited), Learning Japanese, Advanced Japanese Manners, Hakone, home cooking.
Making Restaurant Reservations in Tokyo
Cafe de l'Ambre
Sushi Sho Masa
Bear Pond Espresso
Park Hotel Tokyo
New Year in Kyoto
Quotes from Chefs
Quotes from Farmers
Quote from Zen monks
Kwon Sook Soo
Yau Yuen Siu Tsui
Art Museums in Tokyo