The Quest for Umami: Chef Yoshihiro Murata

by Amanda McDougall
January 2010

Fast Facts

What is American Cuisine:
It is difficult to draw a defining border for a type of cuisine. It is cooking tailored to the palates of the American people.

Chef most admired:
My father—he taught me my philosophy on cooking.

First kitchen job:
I was basically born in my family’s restaurant.

Most important kitchen rule:
Greet everyone.

Coolest chef you’ve worked with:
Pascal Barbot

Where you’d like to go for culinary travel:
Northern Europe.

Next project:
The Kaiseki Pavilion in the 2010 Shanghai Expo. 

When Yoshihiro Murata talks about seasoning food, he’s not talking about salt and pepper. An amino acid and nucleotide are at the forefront of his food thoughts, specifically glutamate and inosinate—the very basic components of umami. A veritable umami guru, Murata poses that when you harness the savor of umami, salt and pepper are superfluous.

A master of kaiseki cuisine (Japan’s ultra-seasonal traditional cookery), Murata has long been steeped in the nuances of the savory fifth taste. For Murata, and any other classically-trained Japanese chef, dashi is at the heart of his cooking, and umami is at the very heart of dashi.

Since discovering that the amino acid glutamate is destroyed when exposed to heat in excess of 80ºC, Murata has been perfecting his dashi technique to extract the most umami from his dashi ingredients. At the 2009 International Chefs Congress last September, Murata demonstrated his kombu dashi technique with his Vegetables with Kuzu Jelly and Aromatic Kombu Dashi. The kombu dashi combines kombu, a type of seaweed that’s loaded with glutamate, and dried bonito, a small tuna that carries the inosinate; when combined they “improve the taste six to eight times” and with “almost no calories” says Murata.

To maximize the umami, Murata steeps the kombu in 60ºC water for an hour (he doesn’t boil it as many do) and then removes the seaweed from the water. He increases the water temperature to 80ºC (not above) and adds dried bonito shaved to 0.3 millimeter in thickness. The bonito is in contact with the water for just ten seconds; any longer and too much inosinate and unwanted acids are extracted and the dashi will be off balance, according to Murata.

Having the base of an umami-rich dashi set the stage for Murata to build the rest of his dish, taking into consideration the other four basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter), texture, and aroma. With this kombu dashi, accented with freshly squeezed ginger juice and a pinch of salt, he builds a multi-component vegetable dish with turnips and carrots boiled in their own juices to increase their natural glutamate; a pork broth heavy with inosinate; an aromatic, bitter citrus jelly with yuzu; edamame for their glutamate and texture; and rice crackers for crunch.

The dish is deceptively simple in preparation but deeply complex in flavor, texture and aroma—classic of kaiseki cuisine and ideal in the eyes of kaiseki master Murata.