The triumph of umami

July 05, 2015

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The dessert at Roka
The dessert at Roka

We are all familiar with the four major flavours: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But about a century ago, a Japanese chemist discovered a fifth: umami, or “pleasant savoury taste”. He translated this discovery into a fortune by patenting monosodium glutamate and marketing it as Ajinomoto, a widely sold flavour enhancer in the Far East.

For years, this kitchen condiment was vilified in the West, and I remember asking waiters in Chinese restaurants to make sure there was no Ajinomoto in my food. But extensive research has shown this to be an urban legend, and completely unrelated to an increase in blood pressure that its detractors had alleged.

But unlike the four flavours we have known about for thousands of years, umami is not easy to spot. In my experience, it imparts a depth of flavour to a dish. For instance, anchovies do this for me, as do truffles if and when I can afford to use or order a few shavings.


Add a depth of flavour to the food with the use of various special ingredients


A fortnight ago, we had taken some friends to the Net House in Hay-on-Wye for a couple of days. This is my favourite spot in England, and possibly anywhere. The house belongs to our friend Kim, and we have spent many happy breaks there. We had eight people at dinner one evening, and the small kitchen and limited equipment was a drawback. I decided to cook a Bolognese sauce to go with taligatelle, a flat pasta that I am partial to.

Probably more culinary crimes have been committed in the name of Bolognese sauce than any other: most restaurants produce a bland dish where any flavour is drowned out by tomato sauce. The true Bolognese must be allowed to simmer for at least a couple of hours so the flavours can blend. I started with over 1.5 kilos of lean beef mince, a couple of thinly sliced large onions, a leek and two carrots with lots of garlic, again thinly sliced. These were softened in virgin olive oil over a low flame, together with three small cans of mashed up anchovies. This is my twist on the dish.

The meat was added and browned over medium heat, and sautéed for some time to allow it to release most of its moisture. Salt and freshly ground pepper went in next. Now came three cans of diced tomatoes and a hefty dollop of tomato paste. The pot was then covered, and the flame lowered to the minimum. After around two hours, the sauce was nice and thick, and I turned the heat off and allowed the pot to sit overnight. This helps intensify the flavour, just as it does in a curry.

At dinner the next evening, I gently warmed the sauce while cooking two packets of tagliatelle in boiling, salted water. When the pasta was just done — you have to test it frequently over the last couple of minutes or so — I drained it, reserving a little of the water to put back in the pot with the pasta, and drizzled in a little of the olive oil. Warm soup plates were filled with the pasta and the sauce, and some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Despite the healthy servings, everybody asked for second helpings. Dessert was fresh strawberries and cream.

The Bolognese was an example of umami: the addition of anchovies intensified the flavour, imparting a hard-to-define element that makes the taste buds dance with delight.

Another instance of umami was provided more recently by the new Japanese restaurant, Roka, in London’s Aldwych district. Thus far, my favourite Japanese joint was the Nihonbashi in Colombo. But Roka’s presentation, service, the precision of its cooking and the freshness of its ingredients was a sublime experience. We had a tasting menu that highlighted the flavours, colours and textures of fine Japanese cuisine.

We started off with a yellowtail tuna sashimi with a yuzu-truffle dressing, followed by a tiny serving of wagyu beef tartar. Next came a yellowtail tartar, and then small avocado rolls, followed by dumplings filled with black cod, crab and crayfish. Barbecued baby chicken with lemon, miso and garlic soy came with eggplant in mirin, ginger and soy.

The final dish was a rice hot pot with king crab. Luckily, all these dishes arrived in tiny helpings, otherwise we would not have had any room for the stunning mixed dessert that arrived on a tray.

The waiters were knowledgeable and friendly without being obtrusive. Easily the best meal I have had in a long time.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 5th, 2015

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