Umami: harnessing the power of the ‘fifth taste’

Umami is heavily associated with Japanese cuisine but has become an important consideration in many British restaurants too. Joel Hart talks to some of London's top chefs about the influence of the savoury taste and the best way to use it

Words by Joel Hart

Futamono at Roketsu, a combination of dashi, main ingredients and garnish that 'creates a synergistic effect of umami'

‘Umami is part of our seasoning now,’ declared Sat Bains, during a spirited roundtable discussion with fellow chefs Yoshihiro Murata and Claude Bosi. Musing on the influence of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) in Western kitchens, this was the final part of the 10th Washoku Symposium, covering The Power of Umami and Fermentation at London’s Japan House, in March.

The event, which showcased demonstrations by Japanese chefs from across Europe, a talk from fermentation guru Dr Johnny Drain and a keynote by Daisuke Hayashi, chef-patron of Roketsu in central London, prompted many questions about the place of umami in contemporary British food culture: is the term overused? How novel is the flavour? Is umami now as essential to modern-British and modern-European cuisines as it is to washoku?

Daisuke Hayashi
Daisuke Hayashi, chef-patron of Roketsu, showcases his dedication to umami through his restaurant's kaiseki meals

The first thing to note is that whilst umami is a relatively new concept for Brits, our palates have become accustomed to its taste over decades through the popularity of MSG-seasoned Chinese food. ‘There is a general deep-seated wariness about synthetic glutamate, despite there being no chemical difference between that and naturally occurring glutamate,’ says Jenny Lau, a British-Chinese food writer and community organiser. ‘The body doesn’t actually register one from the other.’ Making the link with MSG might be less romantic but it may also account for the reason we crave umami so much. Umami is prosaic; it’s in Marmite, crisps and much more.

Still, the cultural association with Japan has a notable origin story. The ‘fifth taste’ was first discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, after he spent two years in Germany encountering the rich flavours of cheese, meat, asparagus and tomatoes. This led him to analyse dashi the base stock in Japanese cuisine, ordinarily produced from dried kombu (seaweed), katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) or dried shiitake mushrooms. Glutamate – he discovered – is the amino-acid that provides this joyful sensation on the palate. High proportions of aspartate, inosinate and guanylate, we have since learnt, can also contribute, with less force, to making your eyes roll back in umami-induced pleasure.

Roketsu is a haven for those seeking a masterclass in umami

Washoku is renowned for its rich levels of these amino acids, so I headed to Roketsu, having been drawn in by Hayashi’s keynote speech, where he displayed his dedication to umami in his restaurant’s kaiseki meals. A three-year-matured kombu from Hokkaido is the base ingredient in Roketsu’s dashi, and Hayashi was keen to make sure I see it – presenting the roughly metre-long strip with an amiable grin that didn’t detract from its gothic regality.

What was most surprising during the meal was the subtlety and serenity of umami in some of the dishes, a departure from the punchy delivery I was so accustomed to experiencing. This is most demonstrative in the case of the takiawase dish, a plate of cold spring vegetables – most memorably white asparagus and morel – poetically plated and sitting above a dashi jelly pea purée.

Ingredients are given to us by the gods, the idea is that we should not add anything to them

Japan’s subtropical climate is characterised by humidity and high rainfall, so spoilage was historically addressed by drying, smoking and salting. The outcome of this is dashi, which combine in washoku with the abundant fish and shellfish that thrive on the nutrient-rich waters of Japan’s coasts, as well as the flourishing rice paddies, wild plants and vegetables, all nourished by mountain rainwater. ‘Ingredients are given to us by the gods, the idea is that we should not add anything to them,’ Hayashi says. ‘It is a way of utilising umami and making the most of the ingredients without adding extra flavour. In other words, it can be said to be a cuisine of subtraction.’

In washoku, umami is gentle, not overpowering. Roketsu’s kaiseki involves zero oil, butter, or cream, so to create deeper flavours, it relies heavily on the base dashi – which contains approximately 80% umami – also allowing the kitchen to use less salt.

Umami in London's top kitchens
Jackson Boxer, executive chef at Orasay, believes that it's time to move on from huge hits of umami in dishes

Jackson Boxer, executive chef at Orasay, JB at the Corner and Brunswick House feels that things have moved away from this kind of approach when it comes to umami in London today. ‘Umami has become a cliché of modern cooking,’ he says. ‘And to an extent I think a lot of people who are deeply engaged with food are starting to tire of being hit with relentless umami bombs.’

So what is the alternative? ‘We make our own umami-rich flavour enhancers – fermented vegetables, garums and miso pastes,’ Boxer says. ‘They are also more subtle and complex than anything you can buy off the shelf. And an excellent use of squid viscera etc that would otherwise be discarded.’ In a recent meal at Orasay, I noticed a more understated use of umami, particularly in one dish of tomatoes, raspberries, olives and the restaurant’s fish garum – delivering umami depth but without a blast of fireworks.

Grilled potato bread Orasay
Citrus kosho gives a touch of umami to grilled potato bread with whipped cod’s roe at Orasay

Another chef who shares this sensibility is Woongchul Park, co-founder of the Michelin-starred modern Korean restaurant Sollip. ‘I think the most important thing for me is the balance,’ Park says, ‘which means you can’t put umami in every single dish.’ He believes that a variety of flavours, textures, and techniques should be considered to achieve a well-balanced and satisfying culinary experience.

I’d been curious to speak to him, partly as he’d attended the symposium but also because there are so many parallels between Korean and Japanese cuisines, the most prominent being between miso and doenjang, as well as soy sauce – ganjang in Korean and shoyu in Japanese. There is a word for umami in Korean, moreover. Gamchilmat extends from two words that mean ‘taste/flavour’ and ‘to make someone stick to something.’ Perhaps this is why the evident umami profile of the tasting menu at Sollip doesn’t require extra thought. ‘I don’t actually purposely try to put in more umami when I build up the menu,’ he says. ‘I think it just comes naturally from my experience.’

Balance is key when it comes to the use of umami, says Woongchul Park, co-founder of the Michelin-starred Sollip

Doug McMaster of Silo, in east London, is probably the single UK chef that takes the concept most seriously. The zero-waste philosophy of the restaurant goes hand-in-hand with a koji-based fermentation laboratory, repurposing food waste to ‘turn surplus waste into flavourful gold,’ as McMaster puts it. One such example he calls ‘white gold,’ a liquid produced by fermenting egg whites with koji to the point that it tastes like aged comté. Koji is used as it allows Silo to use 99%, rather than just 80%, of the produce but also for its flavour.

Doug McMaster
Doug McMaster outside his restaurant, Silo, in Hackney Wick, east London

‘The best flavours that I’ve ever tasted and will likely ever taste come from the Silo fermentarium in the restaurant,’ he says. ‘I’m biased but I love umami flavours and, for me, when flavour and environmentalism come together it’s remarkable.’ Whilst umami is the main component, koji also produces sweetness, saltiness, and florality. ‘It’s comparable to a fine aged wine in the varieties of flavours it produces,’ says McMaster.

But for McMaster, there’s still a long way to go. He thinks that to legitimately call umami our own, we need to move beyond relying on imports like soy sauce, miso, and fish sauce. ‘If your dish is bolstered by the flavour made by someone on the other side of the planet,’ he asks, ‘when does this become inadequate?