It used to be said that the human tongue perceived flavor in the form of four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Then a Japanese scientist, Ikeda Kikunae (1864-1936), detected a rich, satisfying taste common to meat, cheese and Japanese dashi (stock) — among other things — which couldn’t be placed among the traditional four. He called it umami.
The source of umami, which is sometimes optimistically translated as “savoriness” or “meatiness,” is a group of amino acids. Food specialists recognized Ikeda’s discovery a long time ago, but the idea has taken much longer to filter through to the general public — not least because of the problem of discussing a taste for which there was no English word.
It strikes me as very peculiar that other languages never developed an expression for this essential flavor.
When a French chef spends days cooking down beef bones into bouillon stock, it is for that rich, meaty flavor that results.
The Italians didn’t allow a two-year aging period for Parmesan cheese for philosophical reasons — they did it because of the flavor that emerged over time — its umami flavor.
When you ripen tomatoes in your garden, it is not for the deepening red color (for all the visual zest it gives your salads) but for the umami-carrying amino acids which accumulate in the fruit. So we know and prize the taste in the West, undoubtedly, but somehow missed out on the vocabulary.
If this was a fringe matter, the issue could be dodged. But it is not. Umami is the flavor god before which we sake types bow down and worship.
Ask Western foodies what attribute they prize in mature cheddar or well-made stock and they’ll talk about “depth of flavor” or “richness of taste,” but press them further and they’ll likely struggle to explain which particular flavor tastes deep or rich. Japanese food (or sake) types would describe this unhesitatingly as umami and wonder why there was any need for discussion in the first place. When I started writing about sake after years as a brewer, I couldn’t come up with any better explanation of umami taste than “a richness, a satisfying fullness of flavor.”
The good news is that the magic word has been moving out of the ghetto. Long a familiar part of orthodoxy to food scientists, it is gaining general currency as a loan word in English. I am grateful that we are moving into a happier era where I can spend less time explaining umami and more time enjoying it with the growing number of English-speaking sake enthusiasts.
Musician Frank Zappa said that talking about music is like fishing about architecture, and writing about tastes is a similarly disorienting experience — even before the matter is complicated further by an extra, linguistic barrier.
The good news is that most of us don’t need to worry about the often imperfect options for describing flavors verbally — we can enjoy the sensations on the palate, directly.
It’s always better to be drinking than thinking, but, especially in the case of sake, there is a lot of extra fun to be had by doing so with the magic and untranslatable word umami ringing in your ears.
Umami-rich sake styles
There are lots of different styles of sake, and my view is that they are different, rather than relatively better or worse. Still, umami is the heart and soul of sake flavor, and in this department some styles are more equal than others. Imbibing umami-rich sake — almost always in full bloom at room temperature or above — offers the drinker a sensation of satisfaction equivalent to that of sliding blissfully into a hot bath.
Junmaishu (pure-rice sake)
This is made from only rice and water, unlike very cheap sake, which is generally made with large additions of brewers’ alcohol. Some high grades of sake are made with limited additions of alcohol to adjust texture and body, and sometimes to enhance the aromatics. In either case, though, the original flavor components are thinned to some extent, so the umami-hunter will tend to have more joy with junmai-style sake.
Yamahai / kimoto
These closely related styles are named for the traditional methods used to produce the yeast starter. As a genre, they are distinguished by high levels of acids and amino acids. The amino acids mean more umami, and the acidity brings zip, zing and spring to the equation. Warming often brings out the best of this toothsome combination. Look out also for yoghurty aromatic nuances, related to the activity of lactic-acid bacteria, which are the brewers’ little helpers when making these styles.
Aged sake: Jukuseishu, Koshu
As the examples of ripening tomatoes and maturing cheese suggest, the soft, rich flavor grows with time, and a year or two (or five), can give a sublime, umami-driven depth to the profile that was absent in the youth of the same sake. Whether that will taste better to you is a matter of personal preference, but it is my observation that people who get really hooked on sake tend to gravitate away from young, fresh and fruity types to the soft, luxuriant flavors that only come with time.
The aging of sake was a lost art for decades — for reasons related to wartime scarcities and in part because tax authorities encouraged the quick consumption of sake to raise income.
Now, though it is growing, it is still something of a fringe activity. This means that quality is rather erratic, but there are tremendous bargains to be had. However, retailers with a real choice of old and funky sake still take a bit of finding (more about which will have to wait for a future article). There is also a huge range of flavor, body and aromas within the genre, depending on the style of the original sake, and the method and temperature of storage.