curiosity and chemistry…

…fusing my umami faves.

I have a history of being both a meticulous rule follower and a bit of a live-wire Aquarian. I like to call myself a complicated optimist and a lazy perfectionist, so I’m basically a swirl of apparent contradictions. Admittedly, that’s not really so special, but it took me decades to figure it out.

I fully embrace the push-pull in my life because it actually accounts for most everything I get right and nearly none of my many, many failures. I’m obviously not just talking about food anymore. For better or worse, it keeps me from becoming too specialized or too serious. Or too predictable, I’ve been told. Remember I like Abba as much as Led Zeppelin, martinis as much as beer, opera as much as college football, Japanese zen as much as Roman carpe diem.

All of this led me to fusion cuisine, which basically combines elements (flavors, ingredients, techniques) from two or more culinary traditions to create a new dish. Sometimes subtle, sometimes radical, fusion can result in delicious, imaginative mash-ups which delight both our senses and sensibilities. Or it can be utterly revolting.

I’ve always giggled at some of the more, um, unique fusion fads like Fanta omelets, Philly cheesesteak ice cream, biriyani pizza. To be fair, some creations do seem a little more probable like nacho lasagna or chicken souvlaki banh mi. But aside from all the cultural gymnastics and the efforts to be obnoxiously innovative, fusion at its best simply works. Why?

~Curiosity and Chemistry~

Over the last few months I’ve been tempted to fuse-up a little Italian and Japanese. Not sure why, but it could be simply that those are the countries where I’ve had more significant immersion experiences, even though they were very, very different in philosophy, geography, language, religion, art, etc. So why my fascination with pairing those two cuisines? It wasn’t the challenge of overcoming their many contrasts, but perhaps the simple awareness of their shared appreciation of the savory or umami.

Umami is your fifth basic taste alongside sour, sweet, bitter, and salty. Japanese scientists discovered this fifth flavor in the early 20th century and called it ‘umami,’ which translates to ‘savory.’”

Web MD

There are three umami compounds which trigger our “savory” receptors. Pair these compounds with sweet or salty foods and those flavors are enhanced into deep, unapologetic yumminess. It’s like getting a little maple syrup on your bacon. And combining two or more umami compounds multiplies the savory sensation with spectacular results. Think of it as transforming an ordinary hamburger by adding a crispy slab of bacon, melted Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms. There’s a reason we love a loaded burger – exponential umami. It’s pretty swell as far as addictive neurochemistry goes.

Japanese umami is easily detectable in soy sauce, tuna, nori, bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms. Umami compounds are also raging in Italian foods like Parmesan cheese, anchovies, porcini mushrooms, olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Pizza, right? It seemed to me that if I could capitalize on these common savory sensations I could reimagine and tweak without making something gross or just plain stupid.

Because I usually plunge into a new project with reckless abandon, octopus with green tea soba noodles was naturally my first attempt. I’m afraid I don’t really have a recipe because I made it up as I went along. And then forgot what I did. The key was umami multipliers like brown butter with soy sauce or olive oil shallots with ponzu-seared octopus. The effect was subtle, rather than flamboyantly East-meets-West, and I was pleased that I found balance. Too often we look for tension in cooking; we like the excitement of contrasting favors and textures. This wasn’t about that. This introduced complimentary tastes from two cultures by quietly boosting umami.

One of this weeks’ two fusion dinners was Miso spaghetti with Tuscan-seasoned chicken, edamame, furikake and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Fast forward 6 months: Miso spaghetti was my next attempt, and while it definitely put my Cacio e Pepe skills to work, it was its own distinct and complex buttery indulgence. Just awesome. Confession: I may have overstepped with the edamame. Next up was a giant shrimp and veggie tempura platter. The fusion part was sneaking some creamy pesto into my panel of Asian dipping sauces. Now having had some superior, I mean superior tempura in Kyoto, I can’t say mine was great. It was okay, but not great. But fried anything is yummy (even threw in the leftover green beans) and the sauces dutifully hid my lack of skill. I’ll take the win.

Shrimp, onion and green bean tempura with tentsuyu, sriracha mayo and pesto cream dipping sauces

Nothing I’ve done in my kitchen is particularly groundbreaking; it’s my adventure and my outlet as we all continue to dodge pandemic bullets. Over the last two years I’ve become more curious, more competent and more comfortable taking risks, but genetically I’m still 50% Rule Follower. Once again, not just talking about food. And when I do bend the rules, I still like to have a good reason, even if that reason is simply because I feel like it.

This week I felt like making spaghetti with edamame, dipping green bean tempura in pesto and sporting a little bit of pink hair again. I just felt like it. And that was reason enough.

cheat sheet

  • Be daring, bend the rules, follow your tastebuds, make it fun and make it funny.
  • Do your homework or better yet, cook the original dish(es) first so you understand the stakes.
  • Operate with some guardrails or parameters so you have an edible result. Too much is simply too much. Be practical.
  • You may need to restock your ingredients with unusual items like miso paste, fresh ginger or a selection of less common spices. I’d recommend buying on an “as needed” basis so you aren’t overwhelmed.
  • We all end up with a favorite ingredient (or spatula) so be confident enough to withhold it and comfortable enough to add it. Discernment works both ways.
  • There is no need to quit if you fail the first time. Tweak and play, again and again and again. Recipes are starting points, but you aren’t wed to them – you are just dating, so no harm in looking.
  • Don’t make anything revolting, but if you do please share it with me.

process and planning

Bonus: the Legend of Chicken Gum

鶏肉 ガム or Toriniku gamu

In the early weeks of my year in Japan I had a general understanding of the culture but far less command of the language, either written or spoken. The remote village of Haibara had little tolerance for my late-night, non-descript cravings for something “meaty-ish, but not meat.” One night we walked and walked the restaurant district searching for this perfect snack. Nothing satisfied. I didn’t know the word, either in English or Japanese, but I could point to pictures on a menus and improperly describe my craving as “chicken gum.” I know…but that’s the sensation I wanted, a savory and definitively sharp flavor that hit those back taste buds. Never found it and I’m sure our being in hysterics did not endear us to anyone that night. Years later I learned about umami, but until that time it was all about the chicken gum. And yes, with all the pointing and babbling in butchered Japanese I was probably considered the village idiot.

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