Do you know umami?
Once dismissed as a ruse, the taste discovered by a Japanese chemist in the early 20th century is now regarded by scientists and culinarians as the fifth taste, joining sweet, sour, salty, and bitter as the five tastes humans can discern. Everything we taste is believed to be a combination of these five basic taste modalities, each of which has its own receptors on the tongue that respond to specific chemical compounds. For umami, the chemical compounds are glutamates and nucleotides, and they are perceived as a deep savoriness, such as in soy sauce and dashi. In fact, in Japanese umami means “pleasant savory taste” or “deliciousness,” and for some people that deliciousness has become an obsession.
While glutamates and nucleotides occur naturally in some foods – shellfish, mushrooms, and ripe tomatoes – more often the chemical compounds result from manipulating natural ingredients through cooking and other means. Aside from soy sauce, other man-made products rich in umami include Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, parmesan cheese, preserved fish, and cured meats. In its purest man-made form, it is crystalized monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
For centuries, humans have been using techniques that yield umami, without realizing the specific chemical reactions that produced the result. Searing, aging, and fermenting all can transform chemicals in foods into compounds that trigger umami receptors. Now that chefs have been empowered with the science behind umami, interest in it has exploded. Chefs are exploring more and more ways to create, manipulate, and utilize the chemical compounds behind umami.
Perhaps the greatest exploration has come in fermentation, the use of microorganisms – like mold – to break down and cause chemical changes in foods. Again, humans have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. But, the deliberate use of fermentation to create the chemical compounds that cause umami is brand new. And chefs are just scratching the surface of its possibilities.
Much of the experimentation has occurred in the United States, led by chefs like Jeremy Umansky, of Cleveland’s Larder, who is so passionate about one mold – koji – that he has even given a TEDx Talk about it, and co-authored a book. A mold that dates back thousands of years in Japan, koji has become the darling of the modern fermentation movement. Umansky uses it on nearly everything. It’s difficult to describe the way it transforms the taste of food, Umansky says, but his best attempt is that after an ingredient — steak, fish, vegetables — is fermented by koji, it tastes like the best version of that ingredient, an intensified version of itself.
Umansky believes that the absence of strict culinary traditions in the U.S. may be why chefs here feel freer to explore new uses for koji and other fermentation methods. And, indeed koji-fermented food has taken off in the U.S., particularly at high end metropolitan restaurants.
In some other countries, the umami and fermentation revolution has faced stiffer headwinds from long-revered culinary traditions. In France, trailblazing chef Michelle Chang, author of the cookbook Ma Cuisine Fermentée, has had mixed results spreading the gospel of koji fermentation. When she opened France’s first fermentation restaurant in 2017, La 5ème Saveur (The Fifth Flavor), some heaped praise. At the Talents Gourmands du Finistère competition, the president of the jury, Frédéric Claquin, chef of Michelin-starred restaurant “Les Trois Rochers”, said: “This cooking is probably 10 years ahead of its time.” But, amidst the praise, others seemed less sure about lurching into the food future. Chang closed her restaurant in May.
Michelle Chang Comes to the U.S.
With the benefit of hindsight, Chang says she now has a better understanding of what Chef Claquin meant when he called her food ten years ahead of its time. Four years after he said it, she says, “it is still not easy to start a restaurant of fermented cuisine – especially in terms of staff training and restaurant setup.”
And so, when Chang received an invitation to bring her fermented cuisine to the United States, she leapt at it. “I have always viewed myself as a messenger and an educator, rather than a chef,” said Chang. “That’s why I published a book, why I opened my restaurant in France, and why I came to the United States to help set up a fermentation restaurant.”
That restaurant is right here in Charlottesville, as Chang’s invitation came from Gen Lee, co-founder of Peter Chang’s restaurants. Intrigued by the health benefits of fermented cuisine, when Lee learned of Chang online, he asked her to come to the United States to help him revamp another restaurant he co-owns: Kyoto.
Now open with a new name, Kyoto Fifth Taste features umami-laden dishes using techniques and recipes taught to Kyoto’s staff by Chang. Through her research, Chang discerned that, when applying heat to fermented foods, temperature control is vital, to avoid microbial enzymes from losing their activity, and allow fermentation to continue in the cooking process. Combining cooking with fermentation, she says, creates an even richer flavor and experience, reflecting her philosophy that using both cold/fermented and hot/cooked methods achieves a combination of Yin and Yan energy.
Her basic method is first to make shio koji by fermenting rice koji, salt, and water for 5-7 days. That shio koji she then uses as a method to ferment meat, fish, and other ingredients, which she incorporates into her cooking in a variety of methods.
Salmon is fermented in shio before a quick sear, and served in a fermented lemon and koji sauce.
Lamb is fermented in shio koji for several days, which not only enhances its flavor but also begins to break it down, yielding tender meat that requires little additional cooking. Served with a fermented sauce of tomato pesto and koji.
Fermented scallops with risotto.
In pursuit of her mission, Chang hopes to help others open fermented food restaurants in the U.S.. Interested restaurateurs can reach her through her website.
But, her first will always be Kyoto Fifth Taste. Now open at 1864 Rio Hill Center.