Starchefs Day One: Yoshihiro Murata’s Quest for Umami

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Yoshihiro Murata, the third generation of his family to cook at their century old Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi and one of the most respected chefs of Japan, came to Starchefs to present his view of The Quest for Umami, the fifth taste that was discovered early in the 20th century in Japan. Murata is renowned as a master of kaiseki, the Japanese way of cooking and presentation that values the evanescent nature of seasonal cooking and its expression on the plate. For Murata, kaiseki must express umami, nigama (bitterness) and kaori (aroma). The focus of this presentation was in showing ways to bring out umami.

Umami is present in many things. Despite his home of Japan being a country based on tradition, Murata has brough many non-Japanese ingredients into his restaurant, such as truffles, foie gras and shark fin, amongst others. They all contain umami. Murata likened the quest for umami to a baby seeking a mother's milk. He said that as a baby wants more and more milk, a body desires more and more umami. He said that even the baby's quest for the mother's milk was a quest for umami, as the milk contains both the sweetness and bitterness of umami.

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Umami consist of an amino acid, Mono-sodium glutamate (yes, MSG), and two nucleotides inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate. These occur in different amounts in different foods and when combined can produced a synergistic umami effect, an example of which occurs with the making of dashi, a staple of Japanese cooking. Dashi combines kombu (kelp) with a high concentration of MSG and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), high in IMP, to achieve an umami effect 6-8 times greater than with either ingredient alone – all while adding 0 calories!

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To make his dashi, Murata placed the kelp in 60ºC water, rather than boiling it as had in the past. When boiled at 80ºC the glutamic acid breaks up and the taste is destroyed. After an hour, he removes the kombu and adds bonito shaved to 0.3mm and leaves them in for only ten seconds. Leaving the bonito in longer would increase the amount of IMP given off, but would also increase the levels of undesirable acids and minerals.

Prior to 1870, the eating of land animals in Japan was limited and therefore the ability to get umami had to come from other areas such as the use of dashi. This staple was particularly useful as it is able to impart umami to many other ingredients. The main thrust of Murata's demonstration was to make a dish emphasizing umami by using a dashi made from pork.

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He prepared thinly sliced pork and added 2% of the pork's weight in salt to the bowl and let the combination rest for an hour. He adds the salt to allow proteins to separate and increase the available amino acids three-fold. After the salted pork has rested, he blanches the pork in boiling water then shocks it in an ice bath. He then adds the pork to a pot of water  and slowly brings it to a boil and skims off foam. Once the pork is cooked through, he strains the broth through a chinois.

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Murata prepared a dish called Vegetables with Kudzu Jelly and Aromatic Kombu Dashi. The pork dashi, destined for this dish, was put to the side, while Murata explored other areas. His next job was to prepare turnips. He took turnips that were peeled and grated and squeezed the juices out of them, then added the turnip and juices to a pot  along with kombu, turnip pieces and salt, cooking the turnips until tender and skimming off foam. During his demonstration he went to the audience and gave Chef David Bouley a sample of the turnip extract to try.

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To make the kudzu jelly, he took kudzu starch and combined it with the pork broth and strained the mixture into a pot, heating it and stirring constantly until thick. After removing the jelly from the heat, he stirred in yuzu peel and portioned 25g  pieces rolled in plastic wrap before chilling and reserving them.

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He used carrots in a similar fashion to the turnips and cooked edamame in salted kombu dashi until they were tender. He strained and reserved the dashi, to which he added soy sauce, ginger juice and salt, simmering then reserving it again.

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To serve, he heated and sliced the kudzu jelly and arranged it in a bowl with the turnips, carrots and edamame. The dish was garnished with rice cracker (for texture), toasted white sesame and yuzu with the aromatic kombu dashi ultimately poured over the dish.

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