Umami Kelp and Wasabi – an introduction

Turning Japanese chef London’s Icetank Studio was the venue for an informative and friendly seminar on Umami hosted by the Japanese Culinary Academy UK and supported by JETRO London (Japan External Trade Organisation). It showcased some of the exhibitors from the Japan Pavilion at this year’s Speciality Food Fair and they gave demonstrations to illustrate the significance of umami. This year, in the Japan pavilion, JETRO hosted 18 companies that provide authentic Japanese speciality products including rice, kelp, tea, sauces, noodles, seasonings and ingredients not yet familiar to UK shoppers.

We in the UK find the concept of umami to be somewhat elusive. We need educating in this element of flavour which one recognises in all manner of foodstuffs – even those common and definitely not Japanese, such as Marmite. This event helped to demystify umami with flair and expertise from a group of Japanese food big-hitters.

Akemi Yokoyama eloquently conducted this fascinating forum and she was well-placed to do so. She is a chef and instructor at Sozai Cooking School and a respected Japanese food writer and presenter. She was born in Hokkaido, in the north of Japan and that’s the centre of Kombu production.  90% of this remarkable seaweed distributed in Japan comes from Hokkaido.

Chef Daisuke Hayashi was appointed executive head chef at the 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit, and is currently preparing for the upcoming TICAD Nairobi 2016 summit, where he will be overseeing Japanese cuisine. He is Executive Chef of Tokimeite restaurant and of The Japanese Culinary Academy UK.

Turning Japanese Daniele Very agreeable spiciness

Chef Daniele Codini is Head Chef of Percy and Founders, although he has had plenty of experience working with some of the very best Japanese restaurants in the country. He understands Japanese ingredients and umami and his demonstration showed this to great effect.  First, he offered turbot with the traditional Japanese curing, and then contrasted that with the European, more passive, style cure with salt and sugar. We saw the difference between the two, and how such small changes in ingredients can have a huge impact.

There was an informative contribution from Ms Michiyo Itabashi of Yamao Co. Ltd, a yama-wasabi distributor from Hokkaido. Their horseradish is a natural product; grated, and kept vacuum-packed, it lasts from 3 to 5 years. Temperatures in Hokkaido range from -10 degrees C in winter to +30 in summer, which helps to generate the very agreeable spiciness and distinctive flavour. Wasabi isn’t just delicious when paired with Japanese food, however. Use it to accompany roast beef, steaks and in any dish where one might use regular mustard. I have made chocolate truffles with wasabi-infused cream and they were addictive.

Chef Yasuyuki Ouchi of NOBU supported the showcase with a recipe demonstration of Ichiban dashi. This clear soup is used in many classic Japanese dishes with the purpose of imparting umami to the other ingredients. No Japanese food demonstration would be complete or so enjoyable without the addition of delicious and well-matched sake. This was supplied by Takara Brewery which has been a leading producer of sake in Japan for more than 150 years.

The fifth basic taste

Takuro Takahashi and Kyoko Takahashi of Takahashi Food Industry Co. Ltd gave informationTurning Japanese kelp on their kelp products which were key to the event. Kombu is a cornerstone of traditional Japanese cooking. This seaweed contains glutamic acids, which are the foundation of umami. But what is umami? We often hear that word mentioned with regard to Japanese food but also to Western ingredients, too, these days, and it’s considered one of the five basic tastes. It’s the savoury flavour in kombu, as well as in other ingredients. Previously there were only four basic tastes, but kombu possessed a taste that could not, until the recognition of umami, be included in any taste profile. This savouriness has since become the fifth basic taste.  It is a vital ingredient of dashi stock, along with bonito flakes, and is at the heart of Japanese cooking.

Kombu thrives in cold nutrient-rich water. Hokkaido has the benefit of ‘oyashio’ – one of the Sub-arctic ocean currents. Because of this, the Pacific side of the island is an excellent producer of kombu. There are only four main kombu varieties that are suitable for making the celebrated dashi. Kombu that is soft and easy to prepare has less umami, so is used for cooking rather than for stock. Kombu that is tougher and thicker takes longer to cook and is umami-rich, and so is used for dashi stock.

Suppress salt and fat intake

Mr Hayashi closed the event with these sage words: ‘The dishes we demonstrated didn’t have any butter, cream or oil. It is a characteristic of Japanese cuisine that without those three elements you can still satisfy your stomach. The benefit of the Japanese way of eating is to suppress salt and fat intake in dishes by introducing umami into one’s cooking. Obesity is a big issue around the world, but I believe strongly that the Japanese way of eating has a lot to recommend it, and that’s why chefs like ourselves have a responsibility to send a message so people can lead a healthier life. For our fellow-chefs in European countries, I’d like to send the message that the Japanese way of cooking and eating by using umami can inspire them and allow them to create more wonderful dishes.’

Turning JapaneseDepth and delicacy

We in the West have much to learn from Japanese food and drink producers. Yes, this is evidently a healthy cuisine but it’s also a delicious one. Flavours have both depth and delicacy and dishes take advantage of seasonal vegetables as well as fresh fish. Sake is becoming more popular and is being paired with western foods as well as traditional Japanese fare. I see a solid future for Japanese restaurants and food and drink products around the world. Events such as this should become more frequent and should be supported not only by ex-pat Japanese in the food and drink industry, but also by those of us who want to learn more. Congratulations on a worthy culinary event.

Learn more from the following sites:

Visit Japanese Culinary Academy here.

JETRO London (Japan External Trade Organisation)
MidCity Place,
71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6AL

Phone: +44 (0)20 7421 8300
Visit JETRO here.

Sozai Limited
5 Middlesex Street
London E1 7AA

Phone: 020 7458 4567
Visit Sozai here.


Read other articles about Japanese food, art and culture here


Food event review by Chrissie Walker © 2018