Posts filed under Elegance

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 Hundred-Foot Journey Charts a Path to More than Food

The best food films ask the viewer to consider questions beyond fixed recipes and easy menus. Rather the films with lasting value probe deeper asking why community matters and to what use talents should be put.

               Produced by  Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom at DreamWorks Studio

               Produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom at DreamWorks Studio

DreamWorks Studio has recently released just such a film: The Hundred-Foot Journey. Based on worldwide best-selling book of the same name by Richard C. Morais, the film’s producers include the Hollywood power house team of no less than Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake.  

Yet it is the value of the film itself that merits a trip to the theater. The film consists of circles of relationships that overlap between cultures and kitchens and finally the human heart.

The film begins in India where Hassan Kadam (played by Manish Dayal) learns from his mother in the family restaurant that adding spice to both food and life results in delight. But Hassan’s peaceful world is suddenly destroyed when angry members of an extremist political party smash the family’s restaurant and he sees his beloved mother die in the resulting fire.

Fleeing India’s political turmoil, the family relocates to Europe, hoping to find both peace and a new safer location for both their restaurant and their way of life. A broken car and an inspiration from above prompt the father, (played by Om Puri), to settle in the quaint village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the south of France. 

There is only one problem: The location for Papa’s new Maison Mumbai restaurant is directly across the road from Le Saule Pleureur, a Michelin rated restaurant. Madame Mallory, the owner, (played by Helen Mirren) is not amused to say the least. She is the embodiment of tradition, restraint, classic technique. From her point of view, here is just too much music and too many spices being used in that new 'foreign' restaurant across the lane.

Soon a feud of culinary tit-fo- tat breaks out between the two restaurants escalating in a second fire and hate graffiti on a wall. Though traditional, Madame Mallory is horrified at the violence and a tentative truce is declared between the 100 feet that separate the two restaurants (hence the name of both the book and the film).

With peace comes romance between Hassan and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite (played by Charlotte Le Bon) and the awareness by Madame Mallory that Hassan has the potential to be a culinary great – if he adds professional culinary training. to the skills his mother taught him.

Again cultural limits are strained as Hassan’s father struggles, but finally, releases his son to the larger world of fame and fortune. Will the young chef succeed and what will be the cost? What will be the relationship between the two restaurants, between the two owners once Hassan reaches for his own Michelin stars?

The answers to these questions makes the film well seeing (and owning when available) but be assured lovers and cultures do eventually meet over the final truth of cuisine: What matters in the end is not critics’ stars or cultural superiority but rather understanding the nature of fellowship, both in kitchen and at the table.

This thoughtful film, which contains no car chases or X-rated sex scenes, offers a reminder that diversity is a gift, not a curse. Diversity provides an opportunity to learn, to change, to create a new - in short, an opportunity to widen our circle of understanding to include the whole world. 

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014