How Japan’s iron chefs tickled our taste buds

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Japan has long claimed an edge in cooking because of a unique fifth taste sensation – and chemists have proved it really does exist.

For more than 100 years, Japan has claimed an edge over other national cuisines due to a rather unfair advantage.

While the rest of the world’s meals relied on the four taste variations of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, Japan claims a fifth element, which it calls umami.

Once people try even the most simple of Japanese fare, they recognise there is something a little special about it that is not quite sweet, salty, sour or bitter.

Japanese chef Murata Yoshihiro told Australia Network: “There are chefs in Europe who still treat umami as a kind of abstract concept. But it exists in reality. It isn’t a concept, it is real.”

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Murata Yoshihiro has three multiple Michelin star restaurants.

His family has promoted the virtue of Japanese cuisine and the unique taste of umami through five generations of professional cooking.

As Murata-san’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather developed their grand cuisine, they had to make do without the access to red meat and dairy products that French, Italian and other top food nations rely on.

It is a style of cooking that American chef Derek Wilcox has spent three years working on in one of Murata-san’s restaurants, Kikunoi Honten.

He says: “I think the reason that the Japanese discovered it as a fifth taste and discovered where it comes from scientifically is because of their history.”

While Japanese food may taste great, isolating this magic actually happened in the lab more than a century ago, in dashi broth made from a kelp called konbu.

Professor Fushiki Toro is a nutritional chemist from Kyoto University.

Her says: “Analysing a large batch of kelp, a professor from Tokyo University called Ikeda isolated the umami component, glutamic acid. That is when the chemical underpinning of umami started to be revealed.”

The taste and impact of umami was originally isolated from all-natural ingredients, such as a combination of seaweed and dried tuna flakes.

Master chef Murata Yoshihiro knows the combinations well for his outstanding broths to embody umami.

He even knows the chemical composition of its magic.

“Kinds of meat and fish contain inosine monophosphate. If glutamic acid is in the mix, it multiplies the sensation of umami on the tongue by between six to eight times. This is the magic of Japanese cuisine.”