Thursday, September 18, 2008

Understanding Umami

While attempting to describe the flavors of a particular sake to our customers at SAKAYA, we sometimes use the word "umami." What exactly is "umami"? The four basic elements of taste are sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. Umami is a fifth element, whose taste is somewhat of a combination of the other four. Often referred to as "savory," it is easier to give examples of foods that have it than to describe it directly. Some umami flavored foods include dried shiitake, bonito flakes, Parmesan cheese, beef jerky, tomatoes, pepperoni, chorizo, and fish sauce.

Umami has a global history and is actually incorporated into a variety of dishes throughout world. In Asia, umami is mainly found in dried seafood products and dried mushrooms. In the West, umami is found in cured meats and cheeses. The ancient Romans used a fermented fish sauce called garem, which is similar to the fish sauce used in Southeast Asian cooking. The use of garem died out, but umami is still found in dishes using anchovies in pasta sauce, on pizza, etc.,

This distinctive umami taste was first identified specifically by a Japanese biochemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He had wondered about the distinctive flavor of kombu dashi (stock made from a form of seaweed), an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine. He believed that something in the kombu accounted for the unique flavor that the dashi imparted to the Japanese dishes in which it was used. He found that kombu was extremely high in glutamate, successfully isolated the component from kombu, and named the flavor of the substance "umami."

Umami is directly attributable to the properties of glutamate, a type of amino acid, as well as several nucleotides. Glutamate is abundant in nature, and is a natural component of protein-containing foods such as meat, fish, milk, and vegetables. Aside from glutamate, umami taste is also attributed to nucleotides such as inosinate, which is found in meat and fish, and guanylate, which is often found in mushrooms. Some examples of the high glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate content found in foods considered to have umami (100g each): Kombu (3190mg glutamate), Katsuo Bushi/bonito flakes (700mg inosinate), Oysters (137mg glutamate), dried shiitake mushroom (71mg guanylate), tomatoes (246mg glutamate), soy beans (66mg glutamate), Parmesan cheese (1200ml glutamate).

In sake or wine, it is hard to determine exact amount of glutamate due to alcohol content and also the lack of standardized method of measurement. The approximate content of glutamate in sake is 180mg/1000ml and wine is 20 to 60mg/1000ml.

In both East and West, the flavor of umami is nothing new to our palate. Its name might be new to many outside of Japan, but the world is now discovering more about this fifth element of taste and gaining better understanding of how it enhances flavor combination in all types of dishes and beverages.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Pom Juice Tirol Choco

"10 yen attara Tirol (chiroru) Choco" (if you have 10 yen, you can buy a Tirol Choco)

That's the jingle that many Japanese people have grown up with. On my recent visit to Shikoku in July, I came across an interesting variation of this chocolate, Pom Juice Tirol Choco. Yes, it's a Pom Juice Chocolate! Does the idea of pom juice (made from mikkan, a tangerine-like fruit) chocolate sound crazy? Not to me, I brought back a box of fifty of this delicious bite-sized confection.

For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Tirol Choco is a square-shaped chocolate that came onto market in 1979. At only 10 yen per individually wrapped piece, many Japanese people of a certain age remember singing the jingle and popping one into their mouth. The name Tirol came from Tyrol, a state located in western Austria. The name was chosen for its evocation of theTyrolian, "Sound of Music"-like imagery; green grass-covered, undulating hills under an azure blue sky against a backdrop of the majestic Alpine mountain range. The idea was to associate the enjoyable experience of eating Tirol Choco with a nostalgia for the beauty and simplicity of life in the past.

A surprise awaits those who expect this to be a dark or milk chocolate. It is in fact an apricot-hued "white" chocolate with a Pom Juice jelly center. Not only is this Tirol Choco unusual in its appearance, it also bursts with mikkan flavor. I bought the box of the Pom Juice Tirol Choco to give to friends or our SAKAYA customers, but Rick found it so tasty that he has been depleting the supply by eating one almost every day!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Pom Juice

Shikoku is a small island of four prefectures. Since the island was isolated from the main island of Honshu until the 1988 opening of Seto Ohashi (Great Seto Bridge), Shikoku has developed a strong sense of community and pride in each of its prefectures. Kagawa is the place of origin for Sanuki Udon of which its people are extremely proud (myself included). Tokushima is famous for Awa Odori or Awa Dance and Tai (fluke fish). Kochi is well known for drinkers and Katsuo (Bonito...see Katsuo no Tataki) and Ehime is known for mikan (Japanese orange/tangerine) and Pom Juice.

Pom Juice is the juice of the mikan that is extremely popular in Shikoku. I don't know about Kochi or Tokushima, but Pom Juice dominates the market in Kagawa and Ehime. As students, we were given a free 200ml pack of Pom Juice every week in school from kindergarten to high school. Even in my high school's school lunch, we had a Pom Juice Rice, where rice is cooked in Pom Juice. Sounds weird? I thought so, too. To make the matter even more ridiculous, there were a number of rumors that there are three kinds of faucet in Ehime: one for cold water, one for hot water, and the third for Pom Juice. To make the rumor into reality, the maker of Pom Juice created a Pom Juice faucet in Matsuyama Airport for three days in January 2008. The event was so successful that the maker decided to install the Pom Juice faucet on the third of Sunday from 10am to 2pm from June 2008 until March of 2009. If you happen to be in Matsuyama Airport during those times, check for yourself to find out if this is rumor or fact!

Pom Juice was born in 1952. The name "Pom" came from Nippon's "pon" (there is no distinction between "pom" and "pon" in Japanese). The mayor of Ehime Sadatake Hisamatsu at that time named the juice "Pom Juice," hoping that their mikan juice would become the #1 drink in Nippon/Japan.

For people grew up on Pom Juice like me, Pom Juice is not just the #1 orange juice in Japan, it is the only orange juice in the world.