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Umami magic: Japan’s dashi ingredients win global fans

Culinary spotlight falls on 'fifth basic taste'

by Kota Ishikawa

Kyodo

From French bouillon to Chinese soup stocks, broths made from long hours of simmering are common in many cuisines. But one as abundant in umami taste as the dashi broth, made instantly from briefly soaking or heating simple ingredients like dried bonito and kelp, is uniquely Japanese.

“Even when only lightly seasoned, one can fully enjoy the ingredients’ natural flavors,” Motokazu Nakamura, 51-year-old master chef at Nakamura Kyoto Cuisine and lecturer at the Japanese Culinary Academy in Kyoto, said of the power of dashi in enhancing the flavors of other ingredients. “Chefs around the world have come to be aware of umami.”

Over a century since it was first discovered by a Japanese chemistry professor, umami — known as the “fifth basic taste” — has been attracting a spotlight in the global culinary arena in recent years.

Riding on the Japanese cuisine boom, producers of dried bonito and kelp — called katsuobushi and konbu in Japanese — are seeking to break new ground overseas. Much of their attention is on France.

Katsuobushi manufacturers in Makuraza-ki, Kagoshima Prefecture, plan to build a dried bonito plant in Brittany, a region in northwestern France with a thriving marine product-processing industry. Makurazaki is Japan’s top katsuobushi-producing area.

The idea was born from a bowl of miso soup that members of the Makurazaki Marine Products Processing Industries Cooperative tasted at a Japanese restaurant in Paris in May last year: They were shocked that the soup contained no umami at all.

The reason was simple. Premium dried bonito, called hongarebushi, is dusted with mold and aged. But as strict European Union standards prohibit the import of foods with mold, it cannot be exported from Japan to France.

The members came up with a solution: build a plant in France to produce dried bonito locally. Overcoming various hurdles with the help of the Japanese Embassy in France, local production is expected to begin around May 2015, they said.

Konbu, the other major dashi ingredient, is also winning new fans. For example, Okuikaiseido, a long-established konbu retailer in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, exports to restaurants in eight countries, including France and the United States.

“Let them age and they become even more delicious. Just like wine,” Takashi Okui, the 65-year-old president of the shop with a history dating back to 1871, said of the kelp covered with straw mats in his warehouse.

Okui first began business with restaurants in France after noticing local chefs’ interest during a Japanese cuisine tasting event in Paris in 2006. “People around the world are beginning to appreciate umami,” he said.

Japanese chefs have also turned their eyes abroad.

Toshiya Tsujimoto, 30, who has worked at Japanese restaurants in the United States, Spain and elsewhere, plans to open an udon noodle shop this spring in Locarno, southern Switzerland. He will make dried bonito himself using Mediterranean skipjack tuna for the dashi broth.

To learn how to do so, he became an apprentice last year to Yusuke Sezaki, the fourth-generation owner of katsuobushi maker Kaneshichi in Makurazaki. Kaneshichi is known for its unique approach — drying bonito in a room with classical music playing through loudspeakers.

“I hope he can make the most of what he learned here and, adding his original adaptations, create the kind of katsuobushi that matches the climate and culture in Europe,” said Sezaki, 33.

Toru Fushiki, a nutritional chemistry professor at Kyoto University’s graduate school, said one challenge in making dashi abroad, however, is the need to secure supplies of soft water. In places like the United States and Europe, water is usually high in mineral content, making it difficult to bring out the umami in the ingredients.

Meanwhile, many younger Japanese are turning away from traditional Japanese cuisine as it is often time-consuming and cumbersome to prepare. But Fushiki advises parents to make dashi from scratch at least a few times a year to enable their children to experience real Japanese food.

“The rising appreciation of Japanese food worldwide is not only a golden opportunity to promote Japan’s healthy diet but more importantly a chance for us Japanese to rediscover the tastes of traditional cooking,” he said.