daidokoro the japanese kitchen podcast by pat tokuyama square icon

Episode 12 – Ways to leverage umami in your plant based cooking

here's one of those things that just makes japanese food different... but just because it's different doesn't mean it's not useful...

Show Notes

Kakusareta aji, that’s the Japanese term for hidden flavour and today what we’re going to be talking about is how you can use it in both your Japanese and non Japanese cooking. You’re listening to the daidokoro video podcast. Hi, I’m Pat tokuyama And you’re about to discover some of the tastiest ways to feed your mind, body and soul. A pharmacist by training you may know me as the founder of all day I eat like a shark, the food blog, YouTube channel or as author of several Japanese cookbooks, if you desire to live a healthy life and are looking for a different way forward with a hunger for growth, then this video podcast is for you. Daidokoro is a Japanese term for kitchen. And I’m glad you’re here with each episode, we’re going to be bringing clarity to your cooking by blending Japanese tradition and life lessons into bite sized bits that even a shark would enjoy ready to make some magic happen.

When I was a kid, one of the favorites games that I used to enjoy playing was Kakurenbo. Kakurenbo is the Japanese term for hide and go seek. I don’t know why I really liked that game. But for some reason, it was always fun, especially when I was the one doing the searching and finding people I don’t know about you if you like to do the hiding or the searching. I’d be curious, let me know in the comments. But either way, what we’re going to be talking about is sort of hide and go seek as it pertains to cooking. Let me explain. So I think one of the things that makes Japanese food or at least traditional Japanese food unique as compared to other cuisines is the use of umami. Umami is considered the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. We have umami. And I think it’s the key to unlocking the ultimate flavor in your food without adding additional salt or fat.


So let me explain. As you may know, umami can be found in multiple sources of foods. So for example, vegetables, beans, fish, meats, fermented foods, seaweed, and dried mushroom, and for all those foods and others that I may have missed. There’s three main compounds, also known as amino acids. And they are glutamate, inosinates, and guanylate. So if you remember from science class, if you were paying attention in school, these are amino acids. And naturally, some foods contain protein. And when those proteins are broken down by the cooking process, whether that’s heat from cooking it on the stove, or mechanically, maybe you mash it together, or even by microbes and their enzymes, what you’re left with is what makes up proteins. And that is amino acids. And those three amino acids that I mentioned previously, are really what helped to change the way that you experience food. 


So if you want umami in its purest form, you can find it at a well stocked Japanese grocery store, or maybe even on Amazon, what it’s going to be called, or what you want to look for is ajinomoto. Ajinomoto, is the Japanese word for the brand, the product of monosodium glutamate. And that’s the synthetic version of umami. And if you’ve ever looked at different food packages, and the ingredients you may have seen it’s added or similar ingredients to MSG, maybe some sort of a mushroom extract or seaweed extract or protein extract. 


And all of those different extracts or MSG helped to improve your experience, at least when you’re eating. Umami has multiple beneficial effects on your eating experience. The first is going to be flavor. That’s one of the most important things at least that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy eating. 


And the second thing is going to be texture. The third is going to be a feeling of fullness because you not only have umami receptors on your tongue or in your mouth, you also have them in your gut. So that’s going to help to, I guess, make you feel more satiated or full. And it’s also going to give some positive feedback to your brain that what you’re eating tastes good. At least it’s full of umami. And if you didn’t know the word for delicious is not only Oishi, but it’s also umami. That version of umami, which is umai so you might have if you’ve ever watched the Japanese cooking show or food show where people are eating, they might not just say oishi they might say umai or uma which means delicious. 


So now that you know how umami works, the other thing that it has going for it is that when you bring two different sources of umami together, they work synergistically on an exponential level. So it’s not just going to be a 2x or 3x. It’s going to be a logarithmic effect. As far as how it improves the flavor and your experience when you’re eating foods that has umami either naturally added through the ingredients that you’re cooking with or with ajinomoto. And if you want to go deeper on the subject, I’ll make sure to put a little resource in the show notes that you can use as a reference if you’d like. 


So now you have a little bit more of a better understanding of umami. Let’s talk about how you can use it in your cooking. So fermented foods are one of the higher sources of umami that occur naturally in foods so for example, kimchi or miso paste, and if you’ve ever used miso paste before, then you might have used it in some of the ways that I’m going to suggest. 


So the first example is going to be if you have a recipe that calls for anchovies, either one don’t have anchovies, or two, you don’t really like anchovies that much and you don’t want to use them. Well, you’re in luck in either case, because what you can do is use a miso paste on a one to one substitution or ratio. Yes, the flavor may be different depending on what you’re cooking. But for tomato sauces, and a pasta for example, you may not notice much of a difference. Why? Because the tomatoes have a pretty strong flavor on their own. And the miso paste will take sort of a backseat while the tomatoes do their thing. 


The second way that you can use umami and your cooking is with a product called kome koji. So kome koji if you haven’t heard of it before, it’s actually a Japanese rice product that has been inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, oryzae, oryzae, oryzae, oryzae, I love saying that. And basically, it’s a mold that when you add some salt and some water will give you something called Shio Koji, which is salted koji. Yeah, just water and rice and then cook it in either a yogurt machine or in your rice cooker that’s going to help to ferment and create a sweet Koji, also known as amakoji, or you can just use something as simple as soy sauce and kome koji to make shoyu koji and the way that you will use each of those products in your cooking would be to substitute for salt substitute for sugar, or substitute for soy sauce. And you might be surprised especially if you’ve never had these flavors in your mouth before, they will add a little bit of a funk because they are fermented bits of rice, but they also add a lot of umami naturally. 


The third thing that you can also use in your cooking, whether it’s Japanese or non Japanese is shoyu or soy sauce. And soy sauce is a fermented product. It’s packed with umami as well because it’s fermented. And the way that you would use this in your cooking, whether it’s Japanese or non Japanese could be as a substitution for salts. So yes, of course, it’s going to depend on what it is that you’re making. Sometimes you might not want a soy sauce flavor, but if you’re putting it into like something like a soup or a stew where there’s a lot of other flavors going on, then the soy sauce might take a little bit of a backseat and let the main flavor of whatever it is the soup or the stew take the front seat. 


So the fourth source of umami and Japanese cooking is sake. Sake is the beverage as well as cooking ingredient if you decide to cook with it and sake also has a lot of umami and naturally because it’s also a fermented product so it’s good for both drinking and cooking you can use it for example, if you need to de glaze a pan if you don’t have any wine or water on hand for whatever reason, you could use sake to de glaze and get all those brown bits of food stuck removed from your pot or your pan and back into the food so you can enjoy all of those delicious flavors that you worked so hard to create. 


And it’s also great for marinated, so if you’ve marinated anything with alcohol before sake is another great way that you can help infuse flavor into your food and mirin is another Japanese ingredient that you can use similar to sake it’s a little bit on the sweeter side but if you are going to be using it try to find hon mirin which is true mirin in English, and it has a little bit of flavor in my opinion. And it works in similar ways that sake does for your cooking.


 And last but not least is dashi which is all purpose soup stock or broth that you would use in your cooking. You can also use it for marinades, seasoning soups, nabemono or Japanese hotpot. And for non Japanese cooking, you can use it in place of a traditional stock whether it’s beef stock, chicken stock or vegetable stock. So to recap those six ingredients that we just talked about miso paste, soy sauce, Koji or the koji products, sake, mirin, and dashi are all unique Japanese products that you can use even on Japanese cooking, as well as your Kakusareta aji or secret ingredients. 


So let me know what you think. If I missed anything, share in the comments if you are watching on YouTube. And if you’re listening on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform, consider sending me a voicemail with your feedback or any questions that you may have for a chance to be featured on a future episode. 


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Konnichiwa! (Hello!) I'm Pat Tokuyama, a Japanese tofu cookbook author, who travels for music, food, and adventure. If you like Japanese tea, checkout some of the newestorganic japanese tea, matcha bowls and noren and more!

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