The Search For Umami


In this new series on Phoodie, our very own Collin Flatt goes on the road with Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen fame to search for that elusive 5th taste, umami. Generally regarded as the ‘savory’ taste, umami can be found in anything that has deliciousness. The trip starts at Tastee D’s, the new Nigerian eatery in the old Django space. Pictures and more after the jump.

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As foodies grow in sophistication and experimentation, it’s no wonder that the science of food and cooking comes into play more each day that passes during our hunt for good eats. For awhile, our focus was lost on trends and fads, but we have more recently returned to discovering dishes that are just downright yummy without the pretention and window dressing.

Shola Olunloyo has made a career out of pushing boundaries and stimulating all of the senses through his food and photography. I have had the pleasure of eating victuals prepared by the man himself, and not just the high-end, super-slick stuff you see on his site. He cooks a mean roasted chicken.

He came to me with the idea of sampling dishes from around the city that are high in umami, the 5th taste. ‘Savory’ is the best way to describe umami, but it’s more complicated than that. Umami occurs naturally in foods high in proteins, like meats and cheese. The taste is caused by detection of glutamic acids and can be enhanced by catalysts such as garlic, and believe it or not, MSG. Originally discovered at Tokyo Imperial University while researching the strong flavor in seaweed broth, we now create synthesized umami to enhance the flavors of foods that need a little ‘boost’.

‘Deliciousness needs stratification, not reduction’, says Olunloyo. ‘Layer your flavors, don’t subtract from them. It adds depth and complexity. The best chicken stock ever was made by Alain Ducasse. 3 chickens and bouillon cubes, that’s it. But in those bouillon cubes is the big secret. MSG.’

We discussed these concepts and ideas over a few dishes at the newly opened Tastee D’s, a fantastic new offering on 4th street where the now defunct Django made its home.  My dining companion and Adedotun “Dot” Adepoju, the proprietor, discuss their homeland and background. They exchange a few pleasantries and get right down to business.

‘Where do you get your spices?’, Olunloyo says to get the ball rolling. As they go back and forth, I’m already digging into the moin moin on the table, a bean paste pie that has superb texture and a real roundness to the flavor. In other words, I could eat a whole bowl sitting in front of reruns of Seinfeld. But how is there so much flavor in a simple pudding?

‘There’s dried shrimp in there, man. Shrimp and shellfish are high in umami. Dried shrimp are a staple of Nigerian cooking, too.’, Olunloyo remarks. ‘Fish sauce is just fermented fish, and full of umami. Same with soy sauce.’

So it’s more than meats and cheeses as I had originally thought. It explains my gravitational pull toward Asian foods of all kinds, and a need to be close to Chinatown. It’s fucking Umamiland over there. I’ve got Pho in my blood and blood in my Pho. And now I see why.

Our next dish was Suya, which is usually served on a skewer and is streetfoodlegit. Like the pupusa in Belize, it’s a 2 A.M. Wawa hoagie. Beef pounded within an inch of its life and grilled until slightly tough, rubbed with a mixture of heat and peanut, it truly was delicious. My favorite dish of the night. Again, the meat has a serious roundness to it, regardless of what should be a challenging texture. The fattiness provided by the spice base of ground nuts and seeds really slicks down the whole experience.

‘This is right on. I mean right on. Lots of memories and nostalgia in the dish. Spices are perfect.’ Shola is happy. ‘I really need to do some Nigerian cooking now.’ Shola is inspired. Good sign for the proprietor of Tastee D’s. ‘Nigerian grilling is much closer to Japanese style than Jamaican, and you can see that here.’

They go back into discussions about cooking execution and how he will make his meat pies in the future (apparently Dot is going to be bringing in someone to make all the meat pies to order in the near future, sounds delicious) but I’m too busy shredding the goat to really pay attention. Very tender and intensely game-y, it’s some of the best goat I have eaten in the city. Much better than a lot of the recent trips I have taken to eat Indian. As usual, served on the bone, I do wish there was a little more meat to go around. But, I can’t complain because it’s tasty as hell. Served slathered in traditional Nigerian tomato and pepper sauce, I discarded the fork for fingers, because metal and bone aren’t dining companions. I am also slathered in sauce shortly thereafter.

Accompanied by Efo Elegusi, a wonderful spinach and pumpkinseed concoction that reminds me of a terse creamed spinach, and Jollof rice, a precursor to jambalaya that have all spent time around or inspired by the tomato sauce I found on the goat meat.

‘That tomato sauce is the base for almost all of our foods in Nigeria’, Shola mentions as I unceremoniously inhale the rest of my plate, merely grunting in response to his attempts at educating the uneducatable. I’m listening, of course, but he could’ve been telling me who was behind the JFK assassination and that he finally figured out how to make the Flux Capacitor a reality and I still wouldn’t have cared. That was some good rice.

‘I think the salt was a little off in the Elegusi’, I decided. ‘Too much, but still delicious’. Shola didn’t even need to think for a second. ‘That’s the cube stock, which is high in savory flavor. Might have been touched a bit by the tomato base.’

At the end of the meal, we parted ways, and I was left to remember all the dishes I loved so dearly, that I just couldn’t put my finger on why they were so. damn. good. It’s never been an ingredient, it just tasted like perfection. Umami, it seems, is the path to deliciousness in my brain. Right next to that wrinkle in my gray matter that really longs for the first day of the season I hear those dogs singing ‘Jingle Bells’ on the radio. I can’t explain it, it just is.

Our next stop on the search for Umami: Rangoon. I love that place, and haven’t been in years. The only Burmese restaurant in town, with a few dishes on the menu that really look to be swimming in savory. I can hear those dogs barking already.

– Collin Flatt

  • Allan Smithee

    Glad you posted this. Was following his previous blog but it went private. It’s good StudioKitchen is open to the public again.

  • Ben Kessler

    Excellent post man, looking forward to more in this series.

  • Felicia

    Cool start to a promising series! The Umami Diaries!

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