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Umami, the fifth basic taste

/ 06:18 AM October 19, 2013

ONE of my fondest memories of childhood is our ancestral home’s busy kitchen, which prepared meals for at least 15 persons, every day. Our walk-in pantry is well supplied with food items, including condiments like fish sauce (patis), soy sauce (toyo), bagoong (both fermented small shrimps and fish), oyster sauce, and Ajinomoto (monosodium glutamate or MSG). Patis is indispensable for sautéing and soy sauce for adobo and other dishes, to achieve a taste we refer to as “malinamnam.” For soups or bland dishes, a dash of Ajinomoto—then advertised with a popular jingle that went “tak-tak-tak sa Ajinomoto”—was added.

The Japanese word “umami” that translates to “savory, pleasant taste” (“malinamnam” in Tagalog) is now recognized universally as the fifth basic taste, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty. In 1908, Japanese scientist and professor, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, through experiments, was able to isolate glutamic acid from the seaweed responsible for the distinct savory taste of a traditional Japanese broth called “Dashi” that is made from seaweed and dried bonito flakes. He referred to the savory taste as “umami.” Glutamates are flavor-enhancing amino acids naturally occurring in vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, mushrooms and fermented foods. The sodium salt of glutamic acid, called monosodium glutamate, is the signature product of Ajinomoto Philippines, Inc., which was established in 1958.

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Chef Nancy Reyes-Lumen, who belongs to the Reyes clan of the Aristocrat Restaurant and acclaimed “Adobo Queen,” TV host, food journalist, culinary researcher, author of several cookbooks and Filipino food promoter, is actively involved in Ajimomoto’s Umami Culinary Challenge (UCC) as competition director. An interschool cooking competition focusing on the tastiness of the “umami” was recently held at the SM City Cebu Trade Hall. The winners of the four categories—Best Filipino Umami Dish (Cebu), Healthy Asian Umami Dish (Fish Dish), My Own Umami Creation, and the Best Filipino Dish (Visayas)—will compete with the UCC-Luzon winner in Manila this February for the final showdown.

I was invited by Chef Nancy to be a judge in the Healthy Umami Dish (Fish Dish) category, together with renowned Filipino Chef Sau del Rosario and nutritionist Edith Singian. With vegetables and fish as preferences in my diet, my palates felt “at home” tasting the entries. There were 20 entries from local schools with three students per team. They were given an hour to prepare their respective dishes. Whittling down the list to three winners wasn’t easy. After careful deliberation, declared winners were: Broiled Tanguige with Tree Sorrel (commonly called kamias or iba) and Lemon Grass, 1st place; Aji Veggie Roulade with Fruit Salsa, 2nd place; and Asian Poached Vegetable Roll with Parrot Fish, 3rd place.

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“Malinamnam,” indeed!

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