Posts filed under Books

Part 1 - The History and Heritage of the Fifth Taste

By Ana Kinkaid

Once upon a time, there was an ancient dream - a story told over and over of a magic substance that when added to something found in everyday life would result in something wonderful, something amazing, something glorious.

                                                                        Maier’ s Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 8

                                                                        Maier’ s Atalanta Fugiens, Emblem 8

Called an elixir, novels and operas have been written about it, philosophers have sought it and saints have claimed it. Kings and queens have offered diamonds and emeralds to ancient alchemists to obtain it.

Yet it was a perceptive judge, insightful chef and a determined scientist who finally found the substance that in food is the very essence of what ancients sought.

In 1793 there lived in France a young lawyer named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, known simply as Savarin to the culinary world. Having earlier represented members of the nobility in legal matters, his loyalty to the French Revolution was in question and so was his life.


                                                                                          Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

                                                                                       Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Like many of France’s intelligentsia, he fled to the new republic of America, whose recent revolution had been supported by French military training and the actual bullets fired at the final battle at Yorktown.

In America he taught French, played the violin in a Philadelphia chamber orchestra, studied medicine and chemistry and enjoyed roasting a turkey with no less a person than Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

                                                        Monticello - Jefferson's Beloved Country Home

                                                        Monticello - Jefferson's Beloved Country Home

When Napoleon came to power, the extremes of the French Revolution were replaced with calm, making it safe for Savarin to return to France. Because so many lawyers had literally lost their heads during the Revolution, there was a great need for experienced lawyers such as Savarin in France. Upon arriving, Savarin was appointed the lead judge of the Court of Appeals, a court that evaluated the legality of laws, not individual cases, somewhat similar to our Supreme Court.

From the security of that position, which he held for the rest of his life, he wrote The Physiology of Taste. Published  in 1826, two months before his death, it noted the presence of  something special, beyond the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, in soups, browned  beef and the shellfish that he loved.

                                                                         The Physiology of Taste   - Never Out of Print!

                                                                        The Physiology of Taste - Never Out of Print!

He did not know what it was exactly, only that its presence made good foods taste fabulous.

Nearly a hundred years would pass before another culinary great, Chef Auguste Escoffier, would seek the answer to what was the magic ingredient that made such a difference. 

Born in France, he rose to fame as the “King of Chefs and the Chef to Kings” at London’s Ritz and Savoy Hotels. 

There he rediscovered in 1890 that magic ‘something’ in his career-defining veal stock. In his legendary cookbook, Le Guide Culinare, he declares this stock, made from slowly browned bones and meat, as the core of the Five Mother Sauces on which all other French sauces are based.   

When prepared correctly, each of these sauces has that certain something that makes French foods to what we define as “French Food.”

Yet at the same time, there was a young scientist, named Kikunae Ikeda, who lived in Kyoto, who was having dinner one evening with his wife and children. As is traditional in Japanese cuisine, the meal they were enjoying started with a warm cup of seaweed soup – the same miso based soup many of us have enjoyed when dining in a Japanese restaurant. 

The soup they were sipping has long been part of Kyoto’s legendary Buddhist temple cuisine. The original recipe for the soup had come from China with the famed scholar Dogen, who was also the tenzo or cook at the Shojin Ryori Temple where no meat was ever served. Instead the cooks there turned to the richness of sea for flavor and protein. 

It was that same mysterious rich full flavor that Ikeda asked his children to name. One said salty, another said beefy though there was no beef in the broth. It was Ikeda’s wife, who when it was her turn, described the core taste as “delicious!” 

                                                                                                          Miso Soup

                                                                                                          Miso Soup

Everyone laughed and said that yes that was the taste. But how can ‘delicious’ be a taste when the other four flavors of sweet, salt, bitter and sour are so defined? The question haunted Ikeda, who was an inquiring scientist as well as a thoughtful father. 

It was one thing to know that the “deliciousness” exists, but Ikeda wanted to know exactly what it was and how it worked. 

Soon he was researching what it was in the soup that made it taste so great. Years of trial and error followed. Bowl after bowl of soup was analyzed but the defining substance remained hidden, elusive. Yet Ikeda never gave up. Finally in 1908, he found the phantom element on his microscope slide. 

                                                                                         At Long Last, There It Was!

                                                                                         At Long Last, There It Was!

Exhausted, yet excited, he wondered what to call his new discovery. Finally with a smile, he chose a name based on what his wife had originally given the taste – delicious essense or “umami” in Japanese. 

Ikeda realized that his discovery had vast commercial application that could benefit humanity. If food was made more flavorful, more people would purchase and enjoy healthier cuisine. The result would be a reduction of disease through better diet.

 He turned to a young industrialist, Saburosuke Suzuki II, who was successfully producing iodine from seaweed. And though Ikeda had found that sea kelp was a prime source for umami, Suzuki declined Ikeda’s request that he produce the new compound. 

                                                                                                         Now Available!

                                                                                                         Now Available!

The long years of trial and error research had taught Ikeda not to give up easily. He finally convinced Suzuki and the magic product, long sought after by chefs and mystics, was available to the public. 

Want to know what it is? That's tomorrow's story - Part II

Presented at Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association 2014 Conference with many thanks to Taylor Shellfish FarmsNikken Foods USA and Green Paper Products.

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014

The Copacetic Dance of Creative Cuisine

by Peter Schlagel

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught, “All is fire; all is change and flow”. This is the same sage who said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”.

With this point of view, he surely must have had the insights of a chef. Because, for a chef, the conception, preparation and serving of a suite of creative dishes to an appreciative diner is much more than a sequence of static random tastes collectively comprising a meal.

No, it is more like Stravinsky’s multi-layered ballet The Firebird wherein a pure vision is transformed into the ensemble action of an entire company of dancers and musicians, each playing an important role in the creation of a magnificent performance.

Firebird 5.jpg

Many diners have the mistaken impression that they will be served a linear procession of different and pleasing tastes as they sit passively consuming the next carbon copy dish in a meaningless parade. This is not unlike an anonymous viewer of a TV sitcom like Gilligan’s Island, complete with its cues of canned laughter after each one-liner joke, demanding no more than half-awake attention between commercial breaks.

And if one is in a hurry (and what modern consumer is not), then one can further shorten the entire process without even having to get out of one’s car to quickly order and consume fast food served in neat little bags and boxes.

This is not dining or cuisine or conscious art. This is simply eating, a necessary function shared by all animals from man to mouse to mite. It requires neither brain nor consciousness, only hunger and a mouth. How the food is prepared is of no consequence, as long as it can be eaten.

However, culinary creations, like all great art, demand a great deal of their audience. They have the capacity to move the conscious soul and change lives forever. Fine cuisine is deeply human and expresses the highest capacity for creative life. And it is inherently dynamic, not static.

A consumer of fine dining must be fully awake and prepared to be challenged, surprised, even changed. Each diner is invited to actively participate in a grand “dance” of shifting melodies and harmonies of flavors, some major and some minor, some rhythmic, some percussive, and all comprising a complex dance of movements and singular experiences that cannot be reproduced again exactly like this unique performance.

Dizzy Gillespie 1.jpg

Think of a small local jazz band improvising on a standard composition at a one night show in a small private club, or a modern dance company’s world premiere of a new work. These performance art presentations are not accidental or random. They are as carefully planned and executed as a general’s battle plan or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony because the mind of the general or composer or chef sees the entire vision before the first note or the first table place is set.

Everyone in the kitchen must learn to “chop wood and carry water” before one can create the other kind of magic, for they are one and the same. Or, as the great Zen Master Dogen pithily put it, “Practice IS realization”.

He was the same sage who wrote Instructions to the Cook, giving voice as head chef to the vision and responsibility for leading his creative team through the essential rules for the kitchen, as well as the greater community and a life well lived. Each performance, each preparation expresses completely a unique lived truth.

Ferran 1b.jpg

A talented chef has the ability to visualize combinations of flavors, herbs and spices before the food is ever procured and prepared. This is part of his or her unique talent and artistic genius that enables the creation of new dishes as well as variations on the classics that delight, challenge and move the diner.

The insightful diner is invited to join in a “dance” with this creative movement of the chef’s vision through a knowing appreciation of their purposeful culinary art. They can then engage in the free flowing river of experiences that the chef and his staff prepare, present and guide them through.

Food 1, Japanese.jpg

The diner cannot be a passive semi-conscious consumer of canned familiar post-cards of taste. Instead, he or she must be equal to the great adventure of discovery and satisfaction that comes from true art. They must be brave and awake. They must be open and fully human in order to experience the real full potential of great culinary art.

Yes, Heraclitus, the chef–inspired sage, was right – all is fire and change in the kitchen. Creating new “music” is hard work. When successful, the diner can share in the wonder of experiencing new culinary art that will challenge all their senses as they savor its beauty and know that they can’t step into this same deep river twice.

But fortunately the number of creative culinary rivers is today without limit. With due courage and imagination, another river, another culinary experience is just waiting to be discovered, perhaps just around the corner this very night! Go ahead, accept the invitation and enjoy the dance!

Fire River 1c.jpg

Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2014