Despite what you have been lead to believe, two and two can equal five and often does.
“What are you on about here, Wayne?” I hear you ask.
I’m paraphrasing Sake Restaurant and Bar’s Executive Chef Shaun Presland on a statement he’s used to describe what happens when food and drink rich in umami are paired.
Umami, like sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, is a taste. It was originally isolated as separate from the others in 1908 by Ikeda Kikunae, a Professor at the Tokyo Imperial University. He was trying to discover why bonito flakes tasted so good, and one interpretation of the characters used to make the word is ‘awesome-taste’. “Umai!” is what Japanese person might exclaim when eating or drinking something particularly flavoursome, and next time you’re dining in a Japanese restaurant don’t be surprised if you hear it.
Professor Ikeda knew he was on to something, but it wasn’t until 1985 that the term umami was officially recognised as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides. When you eat food with these two chemical components there’s something there that’s not sweet, sour, bitter or salty. It’s separate.
In fact, the word is now used in all the major languages to describe this fifth taste, and the thing is you already know what it is but maybe you haven’t recognised it as being unique. It occurs in many things such as mushrooms, tomatoes, fish, and cured meats. It’s the smokiness in some red wines. It is the meatiness in cheese. Vegemite has a massive umami hit, and if you can isolate what ties all these things together then that is ‘umami’.
I’m talking about it today because it also occurs in sake, and it is a MAJOR reason why the next time you find yourself in a Japanese restaurant you should ask about the sake on the menu.
To explain, let’s go back to that ‘two and two equals five’ business. Think now about roasted tomatoes and parmesan cheese, or perhaps a more on topic example would be soy sauce and wasabi. Soy tastes good. Wasabi tastes good. Soy and wasabi?
When it comes to sake, umami is just another of the myriad of influences brewers need to regulate in their product. It occurs when the amino acids in the brew link together to create compounds rich in glutamates. Too much umami and the sake can taste sour and a little intense, not enough and the end result might be thin and watery. Kozaemon Brewery from Gifu makes the umami-rich Yamahai Honjouzo in their largest vats to facilitate umami production, helping to give what would otherwise be a light style of sake more body. Mioya from Ishikawa regularly ages their product to allow the amino-acids to bond, and the delicious Amabuki Junmai Ginjo from Saga has a lovely smokiness that is the umami showing its presence.
End result? Umami is just another reason you should drink sake next time you find yourself at a Japanese restaurant. And by the way, if you like wasabi with your soy, here’s something that helped me get through the moments of homesickness when living in Japan. Vegemite, wasabi and butter on toast.
According to Wayne Shennen, good bartending is all about balancing flavours. “The subtlety of each ingredient should shine through,” explains the passionate New Zealander, a trained sake sommelier and one of Sydney’s most respected bartenders at award-winning Saké Restaurant & Bar. “If you can taste what you’re drinking, you tend to treat alcohol with more respect.”a
Having earned his stripes behind bars in Sydney and the UK, Wayne is now gaining a following of fans who appreciate his original cocktail mixes and extensive knowledge of sake and shochu.
“At Saké Sydney I’m given free reign to play – our bar staff all have a great knowledge of classic cocktails and we use this as the basis for getting innovative. We also have access to the world’s finest sake and shochu varieties,” says Wayne. “My goal is to make Saké famous for its drinks!”
Saké Restaurant & Bar
12 Argyle Street, The Rocks, Sydney
T. 02 9259 5656