Posts filed under French Cuisine

Part 3 - Tomorrow's Trends Today and the Dangerous American Diet

By Ana Kinkaid

Currently food consumers are evolving into three very interesting groups: Baby Boomers, Middle Agers and Gen Yers.   

Baby Boomers, age 65+, make up the largest consumer group and they are the wealthiest. However, because they are largely grounded in the European tradition of multi-course meals with traditional ingredients - all historical based, they will spend their money only in specific ways. They are also aging and concerned about long term finances and the ever increasing cost of health care.

Baby Boomer 3, With Wine.jpg

Middle Agers, age 30-65, want something to taste great also to be convenient and easy to enjoy. They are not interested in expensive gourmet foods as they have little disposable income. They, too, are concerned about health but they have little time between job and children to get to the gym or take a run.

Gen Yers, (short for “Generation Youth”) age 18-30, are the most open to innovation and new food ideas. They are also the most willing to spend money on food. Yet they largely lack any in-depth knowledge of cuisine so their food choices are mostly driven by advertising. They are easily attracted to any product marked “New and Improved” or “Healthy” as well as anything that sounds exotic or international.

It’s easy to assume then that umami might interest only these young adults as a mysterious Japanese-only ingredient in miso soup or sushi. Nothing could be further from the truth. The umami effect is present in the cuisine of every nation around the world.

Consider, for example, some of the foods enjoyed on a regular basis in Western Cuisine: Aged ham, bacon, tomatoes, sauerkraut, anchovies, mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, firm aged cheeses, egg yolks, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, aged beef, chicken broth, carrots, soup, ketchup, aged olive oil, tuna and, shellfish – clams, oysters, mussels, geoduck. They all contain umami elements. 

Their impact on flavor doesn’t stop there because when two or more ingredients from the different type classes of umami are combined, they significant increase the flavor far beyond the 1 + 1 = 2 basis.                                                                      

How the combined ingredients are prepared can also add to the flavor impact. Roasting, aging, fermenting, browning, drying or slow cooking all further enhance the final flavor.  

Some of America's favorite foods are it's favorite foods because of the very fact that they contain umami, even if no one knows the word umami.  

Consider a humble bowl of the ever popular French Onion Soup. It was originally an end-of-day soup enjoyed by poor weary French miners just a hundred years ago and now enjoyed coast-to-coast in America.  

How is umami created in this dish? First one brown the onion – that adds umami. Then chef adds beef broth – that’s more umami. Simmer slowly – more umami. Then there the aged bread – the umami is building up in layers, ever increasing the flavor. And finally, aged Swiss cheese is melted on the top. The result is an “Umami Bomb”. 

Consider a more elegant dish, often served in a fine restaurant: The Caesar Salad.  

The Caesar salad was originally created in 1924 in Tijuana for the stars of the silent film era who loved vacationing south of the Border to circumvent Prohibition. Soon it made its way north to California where it continued to be a hit with Hollywood’s rich and famous at the Brown Derby for the likes of Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. It was even a childhood favorite of Julia Child 

So does a Caesar Salad classify as another “Umami Bomb”? Most Assuredly! Just consider the ingredients in a properly made Caesar Salad: Romaine lettuce (no umami here, just a place to park all the wonderful umami flavors), a coddled egg (yes), anchovies or Worcestershire Sauce (yes), toasted croutons (yes), aged olive oil (yes) and Parmesan cheese (yes, yes, yes).  

Think of some of  other favorite American foods – pizza, that’s aged sausage, tomatoes, cheese: it all works together because of umami. Pasta with meatballs and either red or white sauce: browned meat cooked slowly, tomatoes or clams cooked slowly and then grated Parmesan cheese. Oh, and wine, too – because it’s aged that contains umami too.  

Last, but certainly not least, consider clam chowder. There’s New England style chowder for the purist loaded with potatoes and clams, all slow cooked. Then there’s Manhattan style chowder for the New Yorker with tomatoes added – increasing the umami even more.  

Oyster Stew is equally loaded with umami based ingredients. So is Billi Bi, the legendary mussel soup created at Maxim’s in Paris for the departing American tycoon Billy Brand in the late 1800’s. It is credited with winning Maxim’s the first three star rating ever in the Michelin Guide. That speaks for itself.  

This list could go on and on, but it’s vital to understand the other reason why umami is emerging as a dominate culinary trend.  

The simple fact is that the national American diet is in trouble, big trouble. Americans are fat and getting heavier by the day with no end, it seems, in sight.  

If this seems an over statement, just consider that presently 2/3 of all U.S. citizens are overweight or obese. One third of all school age children are equally overweight or obese. Even 1/4 of the nation's children age 2-5 top the charts as too heavy.

O.K. so we Americans are carrying a few extra pounds – what’s the big deal? Since few us are planning to pursue a career as a New York model or a Hollywood movie star, what’s the harm in enjoying a favorite food even if means an extra pound or so? Is being slightly plump now a social crime?  

No, it's not a crime but it is dangerous. That's because there are three popular American food groups that link directly to three major diseases that are damaging to the heart, the brain and the body's overall ability to function. Each of these diseases has the capability of severely reducing the quality of one's life and even causing an unnecessary early death.


The Hidden Killers

 Fast Foods or “Oh, My Aching Heart” - Saturated Fats (Heart Disease)  

Americans love fried foods. Americans love the rich flavor oil adds all those fast foods waiting so conveniently at roadside outlets. It’s so easy to get a burger or a bucket and head home 

But many are heading, instead, to the hospital. All those hidden fats allow dangerous plaques to form, clogging the arteries to the heart and blocking the vital blood flow to the heart. Without that oxygen-bearing blood, the heart cannot function properly and a myocardial infarction or heart attack occurs.  

The result is that heart attacks are the leading cause of death in America, accounting for one-in-six deaths. Over 720,000 deaths annually are linked directly to coronary disease. 

Snack Foods or “What a Headache I’ve Got!”  – Salts (Strokes)

When it’s time to watch a game on T.V. or host a get-together, Americans love the convenience (and taste) of snack foods from potato chips to pretzels, from microwaved popcorn  to corn chips, Cheetos, Kringles, Dorito’s – the list goes on and on and so does the salt level they contain. 

When the body cannot process the excessive salt consumed in the American diet, it dumped it into the body’s blood stream. The body then tries to counter balance this excess salt by drawing more water into the blood. The added water increases the pressure on the walls of the blood vessels in the brain and causes them to burst. The result is a hemorrhagic stroke that can kill or paralyze.

Strokes are the 3rd most common cause of death, striking down 1 in 19 individuals. Strokes are also responsible for the largest number of severely disabled individuals in America.  Very often the survivors of a killer stroke recover only to discover they have lost the ability to speak, to walk, even to move. Even with extensive therapy only 10% of these patients are able to recover completely and return to a normal life.

Traditionally strokes most often struck older individuals but today as more and more young people eat the large amounts of salt hidden in the American diet the age range for strokes is falling to include many people seemingly in the prime years of their lives. The loss of their productive exceeds over $128 billion annually.

Convenience Foods or “Sweet Enough to Die For” – Sugars (Diabetes)

Convenience or packaged foods are largely the result of World War II. During that period America had to supply 16 million soldiers with food. Canned and packaged foods were the only way to feed so many soldiers in the field.

Back home, foods were being rationed so that factories could have addition produce to process into high energy K rations for the troops. The women on the home front were making bombers and bullets, not cookies and cakes.

When peace finally came in 1945, the soldiers came home. Their wives had been too busy supporting the war effort to learn to cooks as their mothers had plus many on the basic ingredients, like sugar, flour and eggs, hadn’t even been available. The young soldiers, many in the early twenties, were already used to processed food from boxed and cans.

The food industry, which had during the war years developed into a multi-million dollar industry, wasn’t exactly eager to lose their profit. So, they launched a major publicity campaign to convince all those young brides that cooking was only modern if it came from a box or can.  Cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients was portrayed as old fashion and too time consuming.

And just to make sure everyone enjoyed the mixes, the manufacturing companies kept the sugar in. They even increased it. 

The consumption of all that sugar in the American diet has led to sky-high levels of blood sugar. The body responds by secreting increased levels of insulin into the body. When the body can no longer produce enough of the counter balancing insulin, the resulting damage sets the stage for the development of diabetes and a lifetime dependence on drugs and restrictive special diets.

Today diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death in America. Annually 1 in 10 adults dies due to complications from this dreaded disease. Each year over 1.7 million new cases are diagnosed.  Once an illness seen only among the aging, the most common form of diabetes, Type 2, is now rapidly increasing among teenagers and young adults due to the large consumption of sugar laden foods and drinks.

The Problem Is Only Going to Get Worse

Today excessive saturated fats, salt and sugars are in over 90% of the foods purchased by Americans.   By 2050 attacks will kill 1 in 4 Americans. Strokes and diabetes will claim 1 in 3 American lives.

Americans are already aware of the growing cost of dealing with these emerging health care problems. The average American family of four now pays approximately $12,700 annually just for health insurance. The cost of an average hospital stay in the U.S. is now at $33,079.

As a result, Americans are looking for ways to maintain and improve their health before become ill.  Reducing the excessive fats, salts and sugars from the diet is one way to actively improve one’s health.

The Food Industry, which spends millions to research the interests of consumer, is well aware of the demand for healthier products.. Their response is to declare a product “better for you” because they have removed all the additional fats, salts and sugars.

The result is most often a flat, tasteless product. The consumer gallantly does try these products once or twice but then slowly drifts back to the "better tasting" but less healthy choice. The result is a continuing problem as waistlines expand and medical bills soar!

The consumer wants a different kind of product and that’s where insightful and ethical food production and marketing come in  through the incorporation of umami thanks to companies such as Nikken Foods USA.

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

Your Culinary World Copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel  2014


Part 2 - The Science and Chemistry of Umami in Cuisine

By Peter Schlagel

The term umami has several different meanings which are often confused. This can generate much misunderstanding about how the umami effect works in cuisine and affects overall experiences of aromas and flavors in various kinds of food.

Umami was the name given in 1908 by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who discovered its main active ingredient, glutamic acid (or glutamate), in a traditional Japanese tofu soup made from dashi kelp broth. He derived the name from the Japanese word Umai, which means both overall deliciousness and also the specific savory taste, and the Japanese word mi, which means “essential taste of”.

However, Umami as a distinct fifth basic taste was only recently verified by researchers in 2000 when they confirmed the existence of specific taste receptors in the human tongue for the primary umami chemicals, principally glutamate. 

The apparent nutritional function of this basic umami taste in human evolution was to indicate food sources containing readily digestible proteins and amino acids. Umami has survival value.

Unlike other basic tastes like salty or sweet, umami does not have a simple singular taste of its own. By itself umami (and its main chemicals) tastes almost neutral or slightly sour or bitter, but it can greatly affect the overall taste and flavor of food. Umami enhances yumminess.

So how does umami work in making food taste better?

First, it is important to note that most of what we experience as the many flavors of the foods we eat and drink is directly related to our sense of smell and the many complex combinations of scents detected by our olfactory receptors. This basic olfactory sense is further complicated by how our individual brains and personal mental and memory experiences contribute to interpreting the signals received from smells. 

These complex interrelations of basic tastes, olfactory signals and our subjective experiences change in complex ways over time as we consume foods. Umami is higher in foods at their fullest ripeness in the appropriate season. For example, unripe green tomatoes have low umami which increases as they ripen to a peak in full sun-ripened glory. 

In addition to the basic primitive taste function of umami, there is also a synergistic and enhancing effect that results from the interplay of several different classes of umami chemicals. Adding ingredients from the same class gives an additive effect (e.g., 1 + 1 = 2), while adding several ingredients from different classes gives an intense multiplicative effect (e.g., 1 + 1 = 8). Umami interactions multiply flavors.

The key for this synergy is the ratio of glutamate to other umami ribonucleotides combined in different foods. This is reflected in well-known traditional combinations of ingredients in cuisines such as meat and vegetable pairings, tomatoes with aged cheese in Italian cuisine, Asian fish sauces, and savory meat broths. Let’s briefly review these core umami chemical classes. 

First is the glutamate class (free glutamic acid and its more stable salt forms or glutamates). This was the first to be chemically identified in 1908 from soup broth. This is a naturally occurring chemical which is part of human digestion of proteins and amino acids needed by our bodies.

One familiar form of glutamate is MSG (monosodium glutamate) which, as a digestive source of necessary glutamate, is indistinguishable from other forms of glutamate naturally occurring in our bodies and involved in human digestion. While negative side-effects for MSG in some foods have been claimed (the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome), modern research has shown this claim to have no factual basis in verifiable science.

Research instead suggests that a possible correlation with high levels of histamines found in much of Chinese cuisine has been misidentified with MSG as a cause of symptoms such as headaches in some people. Histamines cause allergic reactions in some people. As we know from good science, correlation is not causation. MSG is in fact both harmless and natural.

A second class is inosinate (or inosinic acid and its salt forms) which is chemically similar to glutamate. It is found naturally, however, in different food ingredients such as seafood (like bonito, tuna, sardines and mackerel, as well as prawns, mussels and oysters). 

It is also found in certain meats (such as veal, pork and beef), as well as naturally occurring in human digestion. It occurs naturally in high quantities in dried sardines, bonito flakes and meat broth (such as those made famous one hundred years ago by the great French chef Escoffier).

A third class is guanylate (or guanylic acid and its salt forms) which is found naturally in high amounts in dried shiitake mushrooms. Drying further concentrates this natural umami chemical.

The human body also prepares for food digestion via signals sent to the brain along the vagus nerve pathway from both our stomach and pancreas where specialized cell receptors can also detect the presence of umami chemicals (especially glutamate). This complex process involves our tongue, stomach and small intestine, all under the overall direction of the human brain. 

Another important factor which affects our enjoyment of food is our sense of smell which adds the complexity of aromas to the basic tastes. Also the sense of touch in our tongue and mouth gives yet another dimension of texture and temperature to flavor. And the intensity of what we experience, or the amplitude, is a quality for which umami plays a major enhancing role. The umami effect on our total food experience is subtle, complex, dynamic and synergistic.

In fact, the Japanese have another term to describe some of these more subtle qualities, kokumi, which refers to overall thickness in the mouth, flavor longevity, and a rich mouthfeel. Sources of kokumi include scallops, fish sauce, garlic, onions and yeast. 

The chemicals which appear to be associated with kokumi are small tripeptides such as glutathione. While umami chemicals are effective at concentrations of parts per thousand, the chemicals imparting the greatest kokumi affects are found in concentrations of parts per million. Very subtle indeed!

In addition to the five basic tastes, our senses of vision and hearing play an influential role in our enjoyment of food. How food appears, its presentation, can greatly enhance or detract from the overall enjoyment of its other sensory qualities. Even sounds of cooking and eating can add to our delight in different foods – the crisp snap of fresh vegetables, crackling meat over the grill, and the low hissing of simmering savory soups can heighten our anticipation of good eating. 

Finally, our state of physical health, our particular mood (whether anxious or relaxed, sad or happily excited), our past experiences and strong memories, and our cultural upbringing and heritage, all come together to affect the quality of our food enjoyment.

When we share a fresh tasty meal (including fresh shellfish and good wine, of course) and relaxed conversation with friends and loved ones we enhance our happiness and well-being. How we eat matters greatly.

Our basic senses of taste serve an important nutritional function as well as contributing to our enjoyment of food. When we have certain biological needs for nutrients we respond in different ways to their corresponding tastes. 

Sweet indicates food for quick energy. Salty satisfies cravings for more minerals and thirst for liquids. Sour can indicate the need to boost metabolism with acidic and tart foods, as well as warn us of food that has spoiled (vinegar, rancid). Bitterness, which has a high sensitivity, warns us of substances that can be harmful. And it appears that umami indicates foods high in readily digestible proteins and amino acids.

A mother’s natural breast milk is one of the highest sources of umami. Thus there is an overlap between deliciousness and the healthiness of foods. The umami taste and its complex flavor enhancing effect can bring these worlds closer together so we can experience the greatest satisfaction in eating foods that are also the healthiest.

Learn How Umami Can Correct the Poor American Diet Tomorrow in Part 3

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