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Japanese flavour secrets revealed

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 4 min read
Japanese flavour secrets revealed
JFOODO's "Unlock Umami" campaign showcases ingredients and fermented seasonings such as koji.
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What exactly is umami? Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa says: “Umami adds depth and complexity to dishes, elevating them from good to unforgettable,” while American chef Alice Waters explains: “Discovering umami is like unlocking a hidden treasure chest of flavours in your kitchen.” 
Umami is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It is often described as a savoury or meaty taste and is associated with foods that contain high levels of glutamate, an amino acid. Umami can be found in various foods such as meats, seafood, mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, soy sauce, and certain vegetables like asparagus and spinach. It adds depth and richness to dishes, enhancing their overall flavour profile. 
The Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Centre (JFOODO) has launched the “Unlock Umami” campaign in the US and Singapore. This campaign highlights the secrets behind the delectable flavours of Japanese cuisine, emphasising the synergy of Japanese food ingredients and fermented seasonings, including koji. 

While umami is familiar to many cooks and chefs, koji remains relatively unknown. Koji, a fungus used in food fermentation, holds a crucial role in East Asian cuisine, being a basic component in the making of traditional foods like soy sauce, miso, sake, and mirin. This organism’s function involves breaking down carbohydrates and proteins in these ingredients into simpler sugars and amino acids, enriching flavours and aiding in preservation. Valued for its versatility, koji is cherished in culinary traditions for its capacity to heighten umami and craft intricate taste experiences.
The Unlock Umami campaign has two objectives: “experiencing” and “understanding” the significance of umami in Japanese cuisine. The first objective, “experiencing” umami, will be realised through its restaurant campaign (see sidebar).
In Singapore, media representatives had a taste of Japanese cuisine during an Unlock Umami seminar held last month. The seminar delved into the allure and advantages of combining Japanese food ingredients and fermented seasonings, providing insights and foundational knowledge about koji and umami. Attendees also had the chance to sample various foods showcasing Japanese ingredients and fermented seasonings.

Two contributors shared their expertise in flavour: Petrina Loh, chef-owner of Morsels at Dempsey Hill, and Megumi Florence, proprietor of Whitetree Café & Hair Salon. Loh is known as “Singapore’s Queen of Fermentation” and has been serving a variety of dishes since 2013, leveraging her extensive knowledge and experience in cooking with fermented foods and seasonings. Meanwhile, Whitetree Café & Hair Salon is a popular spot in Singapore offering a range of beauty and health-conscious foods tailored to women’s lifestyles.
Chef Loh prepared a special umami dish of scallops cured with salt, koji and kombu served on Koshihikari rice, homemade petai miso, petai miso dashi, shiso oil, orange. It was moreish and we hope that she will one day put it on her menu (www.morsels.com.sg/menu).
Florence presented a refreshing collagen-building herbal enzyme drink that was followed by the Yuzu Shoyutsuke Hamachi Rice Bowl. These are available on her menu (https://japan-food.jetro.go.jp/odan/sg/experience/detail/008.html).
The second objective of the Unlock Umami campaign, “understanding” umami, will be highlighted through a cooking showdown titled “The Umami Match” on YouTube this month (see sidebar). 

See also: Infusing flavours and wellness

Unlock Umami
The JFOODO campaign focuses on how umami, derived from Japanese fermented seasonings like koji, enriches the creation of both tasty and nutritious dishes. Furthermore, JFOODO seeks to bolster the export and consumption of Japanese cuisine in the US and Singapore by showcasing the synergistic benefits of Japanese food ingredients and fermented seasonings.
For the restaurant campaign, expect participation from 30 renowned restaurants in the US (New York and Los Angeles) and Singapore. Each restaurant will feature special new menu items incorporating Japanese fermented seasonings like soy sauce, miso, mirin, and rice vinegar, paired with Japanese food ingredients, from Jan 16 until early March (ending dates may vary by restaurant).
“The Umami Match” is a cooking showdown programme showcasing the use of Japanese food ingredients and fermented seasonings, to be aired on YouTube. This highly entertaining programme will feature three American chefs from diverse culinary backgrounds competing to create enticing dishes based on new and unexpected ideas, highlighting the delicious potential of umami. The competition will consist of three rounds, with chefs challenged to craft dishes around specific themes using Japanese ingredients and fermented seasonings. Judging will be conducted by a Japanese chef with extensive expertise in Japanese cuisine, evaluating how effectively umami is drawn out in each dish.
JFOODO was established by the Japanese government in 2017 with the aim of boosting the export of Japanese agricultural, forestry, fishery and food products by branding them and promoting them widely around the world. For more information about the campaign and details on Japanese food ingredients and fermented seasonings, visit https://japan-food.jetro.go.jp/odan/sg. 

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