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Umami: The Fifth Taste

Arts & Culture | September 27, 2011

We have a lot of really fun Japanese loanwords in the English language. Zen. Kamikaze. Bukkake. One Japanese loanword in particular, though, governs my waking (and sometimes non-waking) life: umami. The omnipresent yet elusive “fifth taste,” umami is difficult to nail down in exact English terms. Some say “savory,” some say “meaty,” but why mess around with imprecise anglicisms when you can just call it like it is— umami.

Thanks to the magic of science, we know that umami refers specifically to a taste sensation produced by certain glutamates, a variety of amino acid. The word “glutamate” might recall the more familiar “monosodium glutamate,” or MSG, the granddaddy of umami. MSG was isolated in the early 1900s by a Japanese chemist. Plenty of other glutamates occur in nature—in kombu (the variety of seaweed that goes into a Japanese dashi, or broth), in shiitake mushrooms, even in tomatoes. In the meat and cheese worlds, certain products, Parmigiano-Reggiano specifically, are umami as hell.  Don’t even get me started on prosciutto, speck, and the like.

This summer, I discovered an ingredient that I really ought to have started using earlier in life. I came late to this party, and I’ll never forgive myself: miso. Miso is Japanese, fermented, soybean paste, and the myriad varieties can be confusing to the first-time buyer. Different kinds of miso are classified by color (shiro, white, and aka, red, being the two main umbrella varieties), which denotes pungency. Shiro miso is a good entry-level miso, and it’s what I started with.

Though I had eaten miso before, I had never cooked with it, and my first experience using it this summer was a transformative one.  On a trip to my local Barnes & Noble to pick up New York City chef David Chang’s new food publication Lucky Peach (buy this now), I tempted fate by sauntering into the cookbook section and picked up the cookbook from Mr. Chang’s restaurant mini-empire, Momofuku. The book compiles recipes from his first three outstandingly successful ventures in New York City—Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, and Ko. I flipped right to a page with a recipe called “roasted sweet summer corn, miso butter, bacon, and roasted onions.” The miso butter was frozen and then grated onto the corn. That’s so cool and so smart. I bought the book.

This was in August, and local corn was just getting really sweet and perfect. Roasting in the summer didn’t appeal to me, but I figured I could grill it, and, in fact, Chang says this was the second permutation of that recipe—a sort of Asian take on the popular Mexican street food “elote,” grilled corn with mayonnaise, cotija, lime juice, and chili. Noodle Bar never put it on the menu though, he said, for fear that people would want only that. I can’t blame them.

One night in the late summer, I came into the possession of beautiful local corn; I had untapped shiro miso ready in my fridge. I made the miso butter, froze it, grilled the corn, and then the moment of truth arrived. As the caramel-colored strands cascaded from my microplane onto the hot corn, adhering to it like an umami blanket, all my dreams were realized. It’s like I could already taste it. Then when I actually did taste it, it was really good.

 

 

David Chang’s Grilled Corn with Miso Butter

Essentially taken from the Momofuku cookbook

Begin by preparing your miso butter a good 4-5 hours before you’re gonna use it. Add equal parts shiro miso to room temperature unsalted butter and mix until combined. You can do this in a food processor, but that’s not necessary. Wrap in cling wrap, form into a log, and set in the freezer to freeze.

Slick up your ears of fresh corn with a bit of neutral oil. Grill until golden-brown and a little charred. This shouldn’t take too long, probably 10-15 minutes.

When the corn is ready, get out your miso butter and grate it onto the hot corn, spinning the corn around to ensure that every square inch of corn gets a bit of the butter. A microplane is the best for this, but any grater will do. Not a box grater, though.

A sprinkling of chili flake at the end doesn’t hurt; I used togarashi, a Japanese spice blend that also includes dried seaweed and black sesame seeds. Chang suggests Korean chili flake.

Enjoy.