January’s Gulp was curiouser and curiouser. It wasn’t exactly sweet, certainly not bitter, it got a little salty and never did it get sour. Hmmm…what was that rich, fatty, almost meaty taste left in my mouth?
Umami. That’s right, the fifth taste of the tongue is umami. It is that taste that conveys richness, it makes the mouth salivate and coats the tongue. It makes you want more and then helps with making food taste satisfying. This long debated taste was the topic for our pairing and let me say right up front that LeBeau did an awesome job sharing and demonstrating what he learned about this elusive taste. Just a tip from LeBeau as we proceed. Taste is that thing the tongue senses. Flavor is the result of combining aroma with taste. I will try hard not to get the two confused.
A little background before we get to the tastings. Umami has been used for centuries in Asian cuisine. As early as 1200 years ago Japanese cooks would add seaweed to food as a flavor enhancer. Umami was first identified way back in 1903 by a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, Kikunae Ikeda. By himself he spent a lot of years isolating the elusive “receptor”. Glutamates were bandied about and nucleotides were twisted. He discovered in the right combinations these elements deepened the flavor of food. He used dashi, a broth made of seaweed and dried fish to prove his theory. LeBeau treated us to a sample of the broth to start the day. I can’t say it was a really pleasant flavor. It coated my tongue like a fat but there was no fat in the broth. I got the sense of rocks, kind of metallic and earthy. Daphine said she got smoke from it. These are all examples of what umami does on the tongue. Umami isn’t a single taste like salty, sweet or sour. It is the thing that makes those tastes bigger more flavorful. In fact, the first commercial use of umami was a flavor enhancer called “Accent.” As their commercials advertised “It wakes up food.” It really does it in a way that the other tastes just miss.
Examples of food with umami are seaweed, pretty much all meat and seafood, mushrooms, parmesan, milk, spinach tomatoes and asparagus. Think about them; there is an element beyond salty in all these foods that make them taste richer and even more satisfying than foods without umami. LeBeau shared so much information that our collective brains swelled 10 times 10 that day and it was good. He recommended a cookbook called “The Fifth Taste, Cooking with Umami” by Anna and David Kasabian to get inspired by delicious recipes that are made even better with umami. There are also many many websites to further anyone’s more scientific interest in this topic.
Onto the pairings!!
We were treated to Domaine St. Michelle Luxe Sparkling Wine. This lovely sparkler was a bit dry with a grapefruit aroma. It had a nice finish lingering in my mouth. There were flavors of pineapple and something spicy on the tongue. Later I would find out the creamy note I sensed was a hint of umami maybe from the aging of the wine in oak barrels.
The daschi was to follow and I wouldn’t say this was a pairing.
The first official pairing of the day was a really cool creation of Coreen’s called California Roll Salad. Basically she took the classic ingredients of a California Roll, krab, rice, avocado, and cucumber then added lettuce. She tossed it all with a vinaigrette bursting with umami flavors like soy sauce, sesame oil and a little kick of wasabi. Finally, she sprinkled crushed nori on top for crunch. It was fantastic. Adriel and KP both said while they weren’t fans of the well known roll they would eat this salad all day long. Adriel even went so far to say, “Maybe I should smash my California roll next time!” It was paired with an Angoves Clare Valley Riesling that was more dry than the average Riesling and quite refreshing with notes of lemon. Paired with the salad it changed a little with a grassy note joining the citrus which was actually really nice. The acidity of the wine cut the savory dressing and made the salad taste lighter that it was. Another example of how important the right pairing improves everything.
The second course was spaghetti with prosciutto, asparagus, parmesan and tomato. It was paired with an Estancia Reserve 2007 Chardonnay. This was my favorite course of the day and I am going to tell you why. It was in a word DELICIOUS! Lebeau spent a lot of time explaining how the different chemical elements came together to create a sensation of fatty, savory, even buttery on the tongue giving the diner great satisfaction and even a feeling of satiation. You know that old adage of how quickly you feel full after eating Chinese food and then 30 minutes later you’re hungry again? Well the Umami does that and it did this in this course with perfection. This was an incredibly simple dish made with almost no fat. They used a little olive oil to keep the noodles from sticking and for a little moisture. This dish was on the dry side and yet I didn’t seem to mind that at all. I wanted to just keep eating. The tomatoes popped and the asparagus gave a fresh garden taste. Then add the oaky creaminess of the Chardonnay and suddenly there was this HUGE party going on in my mouth. Flavor danced all over my tongue. I felt like I was eating a fatty, creamy dish and there wasn’t a speck of butter or cream anywhere to be found! White wines grapes don’t in and of themselves have the glutamates or amino acids in enough abundance to create umami. The fermentation process however, especially if fermented on oak and/or on lees can increase this. The creamy mouth feel of the Chardonnay along with it’s smoky/apple-y flavors work with the umami in the food to create an intensely savory, deeper flavor on the tongue. KP said the tomatoes burst in her mouth. “This is a lively example of how wine and food can be spectacular!”
The third course ran a close second to the spaghetti. LeBeau prepared umami burgers. In the meat he added garlic, pepper and a secret ingredient which he revealed after much quizzing as Vietnamese fish sauce. The fish sauce is all umami all day long. It was accompanied with a truffle aioli. Again, truffle is very rich with umami. The burger was served on a soft bun that added a lovely touch of sweetness to the burger and a little lettuce for crunch. It was paired with a Catena Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina. This was a very nice example of Cabernet. It had a leathery, chocolate aroma and the flavor was pretty close with a lovely dash of pepper. Remember in the last course I mentioned white wine grapes didn’t have so much umami. That isn’t the case with reds. While the umami is not the overwhelming taste in red wine it definitely increases the deep woodsy, earthiness that is often associated with reds. This Cab really enhanced the already mighty umami in the burger, not so much by punching it up as much as smoothing it out making all the flavors linger on the tongue. Oh yeah, this was something I wanted to keep eating!
The 4th course was a further demonstration of umami. LeBeau made a miso soup. I hate miso soup. When I go to Saito’s for lunch I always refuse the miso soup. So you know I don’t like this stuff. Then I tasted LeBeau’s and I wanted to call up Saito’s and ask them why they can’t make proper miso. It was really good! It won’t ever make my top five soups but this was tasty. Miso is a very simple soup made with miso paste, daschi and tofu for a little texture. Miso paste is made from fermented rice, barley or soy. The most common is made from soy and I believe LeBeau said his was soy. Anyway, it was salty, eathy, even meaty tasting. Tasting this soup, I started to understand why miso, soy and the like are so often used in vegetarian preparations. The umami gives food a meaty, fatty quality without the meat! I know, you can see the light bulb shining above my head. I drank the cabernet from the previous course with this and I have to say it worked pretty darn well. I was so busy being amazed I liked this soup I forgot to take a picture of it. Silly me.
The fifth and final course was a lovely dessert of green tea ice cream with strawberry sauce and a chocolate chili sauce. Coreen made the ice cream. I have had her ice cream before and I was excited to know she was making some for this event. She didn’t disappoint. The ice cream was smooth and sweet with the added depth of the green tea. The strawberry sauce was not the highlight for me. It was the chocolate sauce! It was deep, rich, sweet and just a little bite of heat. It is a very wonderful sensation to have cold and heat in the mouth all at the same time. Loved it. Here’s a tip from Coreen: Instead of spending big bucks on a specialty chocolate sauce you can use your favorite brand of chocolate and stir in the spice yourself. Thinking this way my mind spins with possibilities. Choco orange or lavender or curry. Think about it. I paired this with the sparkling wine from earlier in the day and I was very happy!
That does it for this episode of Gulp. I want to take a moment and thank Ashley for the pictures she took throughout the day. My Dream Share pictures were great. I really liked that they were stamped with the Gulp logo! For those who would like more information on Umami and wine checkout this nifty blog I found: the swami of umami. Enjoy the pictures and I will see you next month!