Of all the things you struggle to get a handle on, umami, or the fifth taste, tops the list. So, we asked top chef Luke Dale-Roberts to untangle this, the definitive tongue twister.
“When taste put to me the challenge of decoding umami the alluring fifth taste that for so long was considered the exclusive province of Michelin-starred chef-scientists whose days were spent making froths, foams and other fiddly things – I called in my two sous chefs.
After brainstorming, we decided to identify a few key umami-rich ingredients and then use each as the building block of a dish that would highlight its full potential.
Ivor and Wesley reinterpreted two classics. The first, created around umami-dense blue cheese, is an updated Waldorf salad, which, incidentally, never fails to call to mind that classic episode of Fawlty Towers where, upon such a salad being ordered by an American guest, Basil, entirely flummoxed, attempts to wheedle his way out of the fact that he’s never heard of the creation by claiming that the kitchen is “just out of Waldorfs” (in the end, on learning that the salad’s name originates from the famous New York hotel, Fawlty, not to be outdone by the Yanks, conjures up a memorable “Ritz Salad”).
I think I’m showing my age here so, to get back to umami: the second of my colleagues’ innovative reinterpretations was the classic porcini risotto, a dignified showcase for the umami-rich mushroom. I, in the meantime, took it back to basics and fired up the braai. I produced a kind of Hawaiian chicken, the miso in its simple marinade pushing the umami and the pineapple and Peppadew adding a nice sweetness.
Then, I set off on a mission to extract maximum umami flavour from onions and shiitake mushrooms in the form of a new-style hot-and-sour soup. This is a spin on a hot-and-sour broth I used to make at the Bali Sugar restaurant in London. I remember making the soup back then and thinking, ‘The flavours are good but not rounded; not deep and full’. Then I added the shiitake and … wow (I vividly remember saying, ‘crikey!’) – it tasted so incredibly buttery.
Of course, at that time, I had no idea what umami was, but, since then, I have consistently used shiitake in broths to deepen and enhance flavour. Another interesting thing here is the sherry, which adds tremendous depth and body – the essence, in my humble view, of umami.”
TRY LUKE'S UMAMI INSPIRED RECIPES: