Fish sauce has been used for centuries as a umami “flavor bomb” for dishes. An article in British Post Magazine highlights how chefs throughout the world use regional variations of fish sauce – from Vietnamese nuoc mam, Malaysian belacan, Filipino bagoong and Italian colatura.

“Fermentation has been an integral part of many traditional food cultures to develop flavourful foodstuffs,” says Ana San Gabriel, who specializes in umami taste receptors and physiology at food and biotech company Ajinomoto. 

San Gabriel details that fish sauce is made from the proteins (myosin, troponin and titin) from the flesh of fish that are broken into umami compounds (peptides and free glutamate) through salting and fermentation.

Belacan is a staple of Malaysia’s coastal cuisine. It’s a shrimp paste used in curries and sambals.

Belacan has a deep history and heritage in Malaysia, and for many locals it evokes fond memories of family gathered together to make it from scratch,” says Jasper Chow, the executive sous chef at One&Only Desaru Coast, a luxury beachfront resort in Malaysia. “Making belacan is a delicate process that reminds us of the simple yet sophisticated methods of cooking that survive even until today.”

In Vietnam, nuoc mam is made in the southern island of Phu Quoc. It can be made from fish, shrimp or crab.

“As a dip, it highlights the sweetness and clears the greasiness of meat and deep-fried bites. It gives an exciting flavor to, yet never buries, the beautiful natural taste of fresh rolls,” says Pham Van Nhuong, the sous chef in the kitchen at Vietnam’s Tempus Fugit. “As a seasoning, unlike salt, it adds to braises, stews and even stir-fries a vigorous flavor and a signature scent.”

Bagoong in the Philippines is made from fish or krill. 

Bagoong is one of the building blocks of umami, or linamnam, in Philippine cuisine. Sometimes it’s used as a condiment or flavor for an existing dish, sometimes it will be the actual component or basic building block of a dish – like the dish binagoongan, which literally means ‘you used bagoong’,” says chef Jordy Navarra, chef at Toyo in Manila.

Colatura di alici is Italy’s modern version of garum, made from salted and fermented anchovies along Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

“We use colatura as a subtle addition to many dishes and in doing so have nearly completely removed the use of sea salt for sauces and purées,” says Antimo Maria Merone (pictured), chef at Neapolitan restaurant Estro in Hong Kong. “This allows us to precisely reach the level of sapidity by adding a certain percentage of fish sauce to the preparations that lack natural umami.”

Read more (Post Magazine)

“Koreanique” Food

As more Korean adoptees come of age to run restaurants, a new dining style is emerging: “Koreanique” (or Korean-style, Korean-inspired or “kinda Korean”).

“For these chefs, cooking is the ultimate reclamation of their Koreanness — and an act that pushes the cuisine to exciting places,” reads an article in The New York Times

They produce dishes that “reflect their American upbringings and Korean heritage” of the adoptee chefs. Examples are: Jewish matzo ball soup with Korean mirepoix, Spam musubi burritos, kimchi-enriched carbonara, chicken marinated in kimchi brine, battered fish-sauce-laden zucchini with a sweet soy dipping sauce, jajangmyeon sauce with Bolognese and gochujang barbecue sauce. 
Still, they note, feelings of imposter syndrome and cultural appropriation can take over. Adoptee chefs tell The Times they worry they’re not making Korean food authentically and they struggle with their complicated relationships with Korean food when they grew up eating a different culture’s food.

Read more (The New York Times)

The Unsung History of Umami

In the early 1900s, Japanese chemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda discovered the flavor umami by distilling it from soup stock. That compound – which is an amino acid, glutamate — produces the savory flavor in meat, mushrooms and seaweed. Ikeda called the flavor after the Japanese word umami which means “essence of deliciousness.”

“It is the peculiar taste which we feel as umai, meaning brothy, meaty or savory, arising from fish, meat and so forth,” Ikeda wrote in the Journal of Tokyo Chemical Society.

A huge discovery, umami became the fifth flavor next to salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Ikeda went on to start a company, Ajinomoto, which mass produces monosodium glutamate — MSG — a key ingredient in producing umami.

But it took nearly 100 years for umami to be recognized by the broader scientific community, especially in the western world. An NPR story points to the anti-Asian “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” which began in the 60s and 70s. MSG was vilified as an unhealthy additive, numbing mouths and making people sick (an apparent fable modern food scientists have never been able to prove). Another reason: umami research may have been ignored in the U.S. because of tension with Japan during World War II . 

“Fermented foods and seasonings like sake, soy sauce, miso were a large part of the diet in Japan and also a large part of the economy. And so research into the flavor components of those kinds of foods were an important part of rationalizing diet in Japan.”

says Victoria Lee, professor and author of “The Arts Of The Microbial World.”

Read more (NPR)

One of the oldest condiments in the world, soy sauce has been a staple in Asian dishes for thousands of years. The complex, umami flavor profile created by fermenting soy beans has fascinated chefs and scientists alike. Now, a new study has found  over 50 flavor compounds in soy sauce.

“Decoding the flavours of this fermented food is particularly challenging because of the complex processes involved in its creation, including the microbial breakdown of compounds over time,” reads a press release by the American Chemical Society (ACS). The results of the study were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Scientists at ACS began with the question: “Soy sauce deepens the flavor of soup stocks, gives stir-fried rice its sweet-salty glaze and makes a plate of dumplings absolutely enjoyable. But what exactly makes this complex, salty, umami sauce so tasty?” 

They identified soy sauce’s flavor profile by using “tastants,” the chemical that produces a taste sensation replicating the flavor of food. This assessment identified 34 key tastants that replicated the taste of soy sauce. But the team of flavor assessors said something was not quite right “it wasn’t quite as salty or as bitter as the authentic product. The team then searched for other, unknown flavor compounds, hypothesizing that small proteins could potentially be the missing ingredient.” So scientists implemented sensoproteomics, a new method for identifying taste-active peptides in fermented foods. “…they identified a collection of proline-modified dipeptides and other larger, newly identified proteins that enhanced umami and other flavors.” The final recreated sample contained over 50 individual flavor compounds.

This analysis yielded another interesting result. Salt has long been thought to be  the primary element giving soy sauce its kick. But the researchers found that saltiness wasn’t due to salt – it comes from a combination of peptides and proteins. These peptides could potentially be a healthier seasoning alternative to table salt. 

Understanding the flavor profile of soy sauce could help in tailoring manufacturing processes to ensure consistent quality and boost certain flavors.

“Next Level Fermentation”

“Fermented and Flourishing” is what Whole Foods Market calls the growing world of fermented condiments. The retailer’s Trends Council released their first-ever summer condiments trends predictions.

“These days, fermented foods are an unstoppable force charging through aisle after aisle with a full head of steam. Condiments are no exception,” reads the press release. “We’re seeing tangy fermented ingredients adding flair to vinaigrettes, hot sauces, honeys and mayos. With flavor boosts like miso, kimchi and fermented garlic, these products exponentially expand the flavor possibilities of every summer soirée.”

Sales for the condiment, marinade and dressing categories are expected to hit $2.9 billion by 2024, according to market research firm Mintel.

Whole Foods’ list highlighted emerging and established fermented condiments: Lucky Foods Seoul Kimchi Mayo, Cleveland Kitchen’s line of fermented dressings and marinades, California Olive Ranch Carrot Miso Vinaigrette, Firefly Kitchens Kimchi Hot Sauce and Ninja Squirrel Coconut Sriracha Hot Sauce.

Read more (Whole Foods Market)

Sriracha Shortage

A failed spring chile harvest has left sriracha brands in the lurch. Sriracha – a fermented condiment made with peppers, vinegars, salt, sugar and garlic – can’t be made without the iconic red jalapeño chiles.

Huy Fong Foods, based in Irwindale, Calif., produces one of the most popular sriracha brands. They typically use 100 million pounds of chiles a year to make sriracha, chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek. But drought in Mexico has caused an “unprecedented shortage” and left store shelves consistently empty of the famous sriracha brand.

The chile shortage is hurting other companies, too. Though Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi uses the chiles in their products, they haven’t felt the crunch so far. “It hasn’t trickled down to a smaller supplier like me yet, but I think it just means that it’s coming,” said Lauryn Chun, founder.

Read more (The New York Times)

Chef Andrew Wong created the first Michelin two-star Chinese restaurant outside Asia. His London-based A Wong is an homage to China’s 3,000-year culinary history and a contemporary spin on the country’s regional cuisine. 

Fermented wild sea bass and fermented coconut are part of the “Taste of China” dinner menu. A popular dish called “Why the Buddha Didn’t Jump Over the Wall” is barbecued sweet potato covered in a fermented, salted black-bean relish. It’s no surprise Wong’s favorite ingredient is fermented bean curd. He says the tofu, soaked in salt and chili, is as close to cheese as you can get in China. It’s eaten with congee and used as a condiment.

“It’s very salty; umami in its purest form,” Wong says. “I use it a lot in my cooking, especially in vegetarian dishes where we can’t use oyster sauce. We cook it out with some stock, ginger, garlic, and make a sauce. The combination of vegetables, garlic, chili and fermented bean curd creates a really deep meaty flavor.”

He advises chefs to use it like a stock cube, because it’s soft and will coat the mouth in umami flavor.

Read more (Guardian)

Fungi fermenter Shared Cultures was the featured cover story in a recent Food & Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Company co-owners Elena Hsu and Kevin Gondo make small-batch fermented soy sauce, miso, and sauces and marinades using koji and wild, foraged mushrooms. 

The article calls Shared Cultures “the darling of the Bay Area food scene.” It details how they use traditional techniques with unexpected ingredients, like a shoyu with quinoa and lentils, a miso with cacao nib and a koji salt with leek flowers.

Hsu and Gondo also open up about the challenges of scaling  artisanal fermentation. They are the only employees at the companys and can’t keep up with the demand. Their ferments require a lot of time, some fermenting for eight months in a closet-size room in their rented commercial kitchen. They note that it is too expensive to rent or purchase their own warehouse in the Bay Area. 

Multiple California chefs use Shared Cultures products for an added umami punch. Hsu encourages home cooks to experiment with their products, too, “You don’t have to have a $300 tasting menu to try these flavors,” she says. “You can be the chef.”

Read more (San Francisco Chronicle)

Soy sauce is arguably the most important seasoning in Japanese cooking. Its well-balanced, salty-sweet taste and deep layer of umami richness make nearly all foods taste more delicious and satisfying. Its uses range from a dab on sushi to a splash into noodle soups and stir-fries, as well as the featured flavor of glazed dishes like teriyaki,” reads an article in BBC Travel.

The author traveled to the port town of Yuasa to learn more about the history of the “holy grail of Japanese cuisine: soy sauce.” In 2017, the country’s Agency for Cultural Affairs designated Yuasa as a Japan Heritage Site for being the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce. Soy sauce was first made in Yuasa in the 13th Century. 

At its peak, the small town with a population of around 1,000 had more than 90 soy sauce breweries. Today, there are five soy sauce shops and six Kinzanji-miso makers. The decline is related to the rise of mass-produced soy sauce brands, who skimp on quality for a lower-priced soy sauce. It’s estimated that only 1% of soy sauce brewers still produce using traditional methods.

Read more (BBC)

China’s Secret Sauce

NPR highlights “Lu, the secret sauce at the heart of many Chinese family cuisines.” Every Chinese region uses a variation of Lu in their cuisine. It is made from a base of salty liquid (like soy sauce) mixed with sugar and spices. But salt is core to the product, more so than the spices. 

Lu takes on “the characteristics of each of China’s regional cuisines.” In Sichuan, Lu is spicy;  in Zao, it is alcoholic, made from the fermented rice left over from brewing Chinese yellow wine. 

One Chinese restaurant chef (pictured, who asked NPR to keep him anonymous so his restaurant stays out of the limelight) traces his Lu sauce to “an unbroken chain of sauces dating back to that first batch his mother made in the 1980s.” The chef takes his sauce at the end of each day and gives it “nutrients” – fresh spices and meat boiled in Lu. 
“It is a bit like sourdough, where the last batch seeds the next batch, and the flavor intensifies over the years,” the piece continues.

Read more (NPR)