Behind the Scenes Umami-Fest with Chef Kunio Tokuoka

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Chef Kunio Tokuoka with umami-rich kelp

Chef Tokuoka of Kyoto's Kitcho restaurant is in town to cook at the James Beard House next Tuesday. Tokuoka is known for traditional kaiseki cuisine, but his showcase at the James Beard House is billed a "Modern Japanese Dégustation," centered on umami—the elusive taste often described as "savoriness."

This morning, I went by the Bouley test kitchens to watch Tokuoka as he tested and tweaked his recipes for next week's dinner. He's friends with David Bouley and says they'd like to do a project together in the "near future."

Tokuoka brought two cooks with him from his team at Kitcho. They all came to New York straight from San Francisco, where they had been attending a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of umami, and where Tokuoka ate at the French Laundry and Bouchon. In New York, he's planning on hitting Bouley and Jean-Georges.

Tokuoka shopped for ingredients at Chelsea Market and Whole Foods, but he'd brought two key, umami-rich ingredients with him from Japan: kombu (giant dried kelp) from the Dohnan region in Hokkaido, which he says produces the sweetest kelp, and bonito, a fish fillet which is aged for about a year, much the way country ham is, until all the moisture has gone out of it and it is completely hard. It's said to be the hardest cooking ingredient; you can knock it against something and it sounds like wood. Tokuoka also brought his own bonito shaving machine (photo after the jump).

Kumiko Ninomiya, director of the Umami Information Center (who knew?) was also there, to answer questions about, well, umami.

According to Ninomiya, the foods with the most umami are kelp, Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and bonito.

And apparently, it has recently been discovered that there are two different umami compounds: glutimate and inosinate. Kelp is rich in glutimate, while bonito is rich in inosinate, which is why the combination of the kelp and bonito is so powerfully umami-rich. They both have umami on their own, but, according to Ninomiya, when you put them together, "it's not one plus one equals two, it's more like one plus one equals seven. They enhance each other."

And this gets Chef Tokuoka very excited. He told us that before these two compounds were understood, that chefs would think of umami in terms of dashi (stock often made with both kelp and bonito)—serving dashi with foods, or cooking foods in dashi. But now they know why, technically, that's such a good combination.

And he says that this is important because when you really know exactly how to deploy umami in a powerful way, you are making very satisfying dishes without any oils or fats.

Tokuoka was working on a kelp-stock risotto topped with big, freshly shaved flakes of bonito, diced kelp in soy, ground bonito in soy, grains of fried rice and tiny diced broccoli rabe marinated with salt and kelp. He asked us to try it and tell him if it suited American taste. I thought it was wonderful—totally simple but full of that mouth-filling savoriness that umami provides. And I've never had better bonito. Tokuoka is thinking of serving it after the main course at the James Beard House, as he said it's customary in Japan to serve rice at the end of the meal.

How can cooks employ umami at home? Tokuoka recommends making a very simple salad: take broccoli rabe and dice it very small, season it with salt and let it sit for a few minutes. Then add thin strips of dried kelp and mix. This tastes a lot more complex than it sounds (it was one of the risotto toppers). He says you can toss this mixture with pasta.

Or, you can serve the salad with what is called a Hot Springs Egg: Bring a pot of water to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. (That's well below boiling.) You can monitor the water temperature with a simple kitchen thermometer. Place a whole egg in the pot and cook it at 145 degrees for 30 minutes. Crack it out of the shell, and place it on a salad. The egg will have cooked to a delicate, pudding-like consistency.

And before I left, I asked Ninomiya her thoughts on MSG, which was invented in Japan 100 years ago. "It's like salt or sugar," she said. "It's the processed, very pure form of a flavor. They were trying to create 100 percent pure umami. MSG functions like kelp stock. It enhances the flavor of all the ingredients and keeps all the flavors in harmony. But if you can taste MSG, you've used to much."

Photos of kelp, bonito and Tokuoka in the test kitchens after the jump.

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Kumiko Ninomiya with giant kelp from Dohnan

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Whole bonito fillet

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Bonito after a trip through the shaver

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Kelp stock

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Chef Tokuoka dishes out risotto

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