THE GOCHISO GOURMET: That mysterious flavor


Ajinomoto ­— photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Wrapping up our tour of the basic flavor sensations is that relatively new taste known as umami. Though the term umami was first proposed by Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, it has only been widely recognized for the past 30 or so years. But what is umami? We all can easily describe its four siblings, sweet, salty, bitter and sour but how do you describe umami? It’s most commonly described as a “savory” flavor, sometimes as a “brothy” or “meaty” flavor. And though we usually associate umami with monosodium glutamate, the ribonucleotides guanosine and inosine monophosphate also give foods that umami character.

Ajinomoto ­— photo by Ryan Tatsumoto
Ajinomoto ­— photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Where Does Umami Reside?

For starters, there are receptors on the tongue that detect the acid end of the glutamate molecule, but your tongue specifically needs the salt form of glutamic acid. Plain glutamic acid just won’t do and doesn’t give the same flavor perception as glutamate as in monosodium glutamate. Do we also have ribonucleotide receptors on the tongue? Not exactly, but guanosine and inosine “turbocharge” glutamate. Combine the ribonucleotides with glutamate and 1 plus 1 plus 1 now equals 10!

But other than the ajinomoto bottle, where do I find umami? One of the first discoveries that Ikeda made was that konbu was high in glutamate residue. Since that first discovery, it is now known that glutamates are also naturally found in meats and vegetables with naturally occurring inosine occurring in meats and guanosine in vegetables. All three are found in fish, shellfish, mushrooms and vegetables. They also are found in fermented and aged products like shoyu, cheeses and cured meats.

Starting to Make Sense?

Now do you see why that Caesar Salad tastes so good? I mean simply plating Romaine lettuce with a dressing of egg yolk emulsified lemon juice and olive oil can’t be that delicious, can it? Or is it because of the umami from the anchovies (very high in umami) and Parmesan cheese (also very high in umami)? Or that simple bowl of ramen that you crave? I mean, ramen at its simplest is just noodles in broth, but when that broth is made from umami rich konbu, bonito and niboshi (dried baby sardines) with a hit of shoyu

The key is using umami-fortified ingredients to simply enhance the flavor of the whole dish, not trying to overwhelm the dish with one flavor. Again, think of glutamates, inosinates and guanylates as “turbocharging” the flavors. Like any turbocharged vehicle, if you push the throttle too much you’ll end up crashing. So simply use your ingredient “turbochargers” to enhance but not crash your dish. If you’ve added anchovies to the point where all diners taste is salty, fishy flavors, or shoyu to the point where all you taste is salt, then you’ve crashed.

But I’m Allergic to MSG

What most people refer to as an MSG allergy is mostly a hypersensitivity to MSG. True allergies manifest as mild to severe rashes or swollen body parts, usually the oral mucus membranes or breathing passages. However, since glutamic acid is a neurotransmitter that’s also active in the brain, hypersensitivity to these effects or simply just consuming too much MSG can cause unwanted side effects. Like I once experienced many moons ago, though being in the sciences, I thought it was kinda cool … in hindsight.

While working part time at the East-West Center as an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i, I routinely ordered lunch takeout with the other student employees. One of their favorite takeout joints was a local Chinese restaurant. I ordered the pork fried rice. It was so good that I consumed the whole takeout container. And while consuming it, I kept wondering why it tasted so good. After all, it was simply rice, bits of chopped char siu, green onions and bits of scrambled egg. Then about 15 minutes after I finished the container, the “side effects” started. I constantly detected movement just at the periphery of my vision — even if no one or nothing was actually moving. I also thought I heard sounds and words even before they were spoken. And I did develop a mild headache. Needless to say, I never ordered takeout from that same restaurant again.

Turbocharging Flavors

This simple soup combines umami from konbu and bonito flakes in the dashi along with umami from the shiitake and enoki mushrooms and the shoyu. And since the only added salt is from the shoyu and scallop liquid, it’s actually a healthy alternative to canned soups.

Umami Soup

8 cups water

2 ounce package dried dashi konbu

1 ounce or 30 grams shaved bonito flakes

1 can (about 4 oz) boiled scallops

2 tbsp shoyu

About 2/3 cup sliced dried shiitake rehydrated in hot water

1 large bunch fresh mizuna chopped to 2 inch portions

1 medium daikon, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions

2 packages enoki mushrooms chopped to 2 inch portions

3 medium carrots, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions

1 long piece of gobo, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions

1 medium piece hasu, peeled and julienne sliced to 2 inch portions

Bring the water to a boil, remove from heat then “steep” the dashi konbu and bonito flakes for about 10 minutes until a fragrant stock is produced. Drain the stock removing the konbu and bonito reserving the clear stock. Add the boiled scallops with the liquor and the shoyu and heat to a gentle simmer. Though the scallops usually start breaking apart on their own, I facilitate the process so that only individual “strands” of scallop remain. Add the water used to soak the shiitake being careful not to add the grit that falls to the bottom. Add everything else to the stock except the mizuna and simmer until the gobo and hasu are tender then add the mizuna and continue simmering until the mizuna is tender.

If this recipe looks a lot like a traditional New Year’s Day staple, it is my personal recipe for ozoni minus the mochi. So if you want to add the mochi, go ahead. There’s no law stating that ozoni can only be consumed on the 1st of January. Or swap out the mochi for somen, udon or soba noodles. The umami will still be there.

So experiment using naturally occurring flavor enhancers like shoyu, konbu and cheeses in non-traditional ways. Like using shoyu in desserts or konbu dashi in stews and sauces. I personally am still trying to incorporate Parmesan cheese in a dessert — I haven’t perfected anything yet but in cooking, the journey is just as rewarding as the final destination.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at


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