Umami From the Oceans of Asia

I think it may be the strong use of feremented condiments, sauces and flavor enhancers in Asian foods that first grabbed my attention. Of course, I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate that thought–I just was of the opinion, from the first taste, that Chinese food was “damned good,” and that I needed some more.

Perhaps it was the umami taste that hooked me, and keeps me coming back.

Soybeans are not the only source of umami in Asian cuisines.

The flora and fauna of the ocean also provide a large amount of umami for the kitchen.

Fish sauce, known in Thailand as nam pla and in Vietnam as nuoc mam, is probably the single greatest source of natural umami in the world. Made from salted and fermented whole anchovies, fish sauce is often looked at askance by ignorant Westerners, but they should learn not to fear it, and instead, embrace it.

I can tell you that many European and American chefs do embrace it, though they may not admit it openly.

A little bottle of fish sauce was often hidden on the back of the condiment shelf in nearly every kitchen at Johnson & Wales culinary–even the kitchens where only European or American regional cuisines were cooked.

Why was it there?

It was the chefs’ secret weapon to use in the case of a sauce, soup, stew or gravy that turned out flat, flavorless or just plain old blah. It rescued many a novice’s culinary effort from the trash bin and made it palatable, if not good. It changed many mediocre efforts into something pretty good. And, in the hands of a master like Chef Hector Lipa, who was well aquainted with the restorative powers of fish sauce, it could turn something good into something great.

Kasma Loha Unchit, noted Bay Area Thai cooking teacher and author of the books It Rains Fishes and Dancing Shrimp has a motto: “When in doubt,” she says, “add fish sauce.”

As far as I am concerned, those are words to live by. Because, for as fishy as some fish sauces can smell, when they are cooked, all they leave behind is good flavors and aromas, filled with glutamate and other amino acids. When I am in the habit of cooking Thai food once to three times a week, I can go through a bottle of fish sauce within less than a month, but I still use it fairly often when I am just cooking whatever, because I will sneak just a tad bit of it into soups and stews especially, to perk up the flavors and bring them to life.

My favorite brand is Golden Boy–as you can see it has a happy, chubby baby boy on the front, holding a bottle of fish sauce instead of milk. It is great stuff.

But fish sauce is not the only oceanic bringer of umami. There is also a preponderance of dried seafood in Asian cooking. Dried shrimp are used in both Thai and Chinese cooking, and dried scallops, also known as conpoy, are a beloved luxury item in Cantonese cuisine. Both dried shrimp and scallops smell somewhat strong, but their flavor when added to a dish is sublime, and delicious, bringing a much more complex aroma and taste than is possible with their fresh counterparts.

Shrimp are also ground up into sauces and pastes, and at least one very famous cooking sauce, invented in the middle of the twentieth century in Hong Kong, has dried scallops as a main ingredient. Shrimp pastes and sauces are used sparingly in making curry pastes in Thai food and in saucing various meats and vegetables in Chinese food. There is no way around it–ground shrimp paste and sauce is not attractive. Often greyish-pink in color, it is very strongly scented, but, again, once it is cooked into a dish, the very unpleasantly fermented fish odor dissipates and the umami taste blooms, embracing the other ingredients of the dish and marrying them into a happy harmony. I have tried leaving out the shrimp paste from Thai curry pastes and have wound up with very flat tasting coconut milk curries, so I don’t bother doing that anymore. I just open the jar, stick the spoon in and scoop it up with my breath held, until the jar is tightly sealed again.

As for that famous Hong Kong sauce–that would be XO sauce. It is used often in the cooking of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Canton, and is a spicy, very strong-flavored sweet sauce. It is particularly good with pork where its richness combines deliciously with the sweet meat, providing a lovely depth of flavor to it. I also like it with eggplant.

Another famous condiment based on a shellfish is Cantonese oyster sauce. Prevalant in southern Chinese cookery, I have also had it in Thai food, and have found it to be wonderful in many Chinese dishes, particularly ones featuring black beans and gai lan. When purchasing oyster sauce, it is imperative to look at the ingredients and make certain that oyster extract appears near the beginning of the list. Some sauces are mostly cornstarch, sugar and water, with very little oyster flavor at all, while others use more of the extract and thus have more of the delicious ocean flavor that one would expect from the sauce. I prefer Lee Kum Kee Premium, as it is nearly always easily obtained here in Ohio, and tastes quite oceanic, but I recently picked up Amoy brand Oyster Supreme Sauce with Scallops which, in addition to having oyster extract as the first ingredient listed, includes dried scallops, which makes the sauce particularly rich and fragrant.

Finfish, like the anchovies used to make fish sauce, are also endowed with great amounts of natural glutamates. Dried whole anchovies are used in Chinese and Thai dishes as an ingredient, meant to be eaten along with the main ingredients. They are chewy, salty and a bit crisp due to the tiny bones, but they give the sauce they are cooked in a splendid flavor. In Japan, dried, shaved flakes of bonito are used along with kombu, or kelp, as a main ingredient in their ubiquitous dashi stock–the lovely, nose-thrilling clear broth into which miso is whisked to make miso soup. (As I type this, I am having a morning mug of miso soup; that is what Morganna takes for lunch at school once the weather is cold. Her thermos only holds so much, so, I get a mug to help energize me each morning. It is almost as wakefulness inducing as coffee. Almost.) Dashi is not only used in soup however; it is the basis for many sauces, cooking liquids and marinades, so much so that its light flavor is practically the backbone of the Japanese kitchen.

Kombu, the aforementioned dried kelp that is the second pillar of dashi alongside bonito, is so filled with glutamate that sometimes, when you purchase long planks of it dried, a white powdery substance is evident on its surface. That is naturally crystallized glutamate, and should not be washed away, but instead, should be allowed to simmer gently into the dashi. All ocean vegetables, or seaweed, have the umami taste in greater or lesser concentrations. These include wakame, which is used to make salads and to garnish soups in Japan, and nori, or laver, which is used to wrap sushi rolls.

There are other sea creatures and plants that contain umami to greater or lesser extents, of course, but these are the ingredients that are most commonly found in Asian markets everywhere. All of them are very useful in giving whatever they are cooked with a flavor boost by pumping up the umami present in the dish, which not only adds to the taste profile of it, but also boosts the nutritive value by adding essential amino acids to the diet. All of these ingredients are worthy of investigation and use in the kitchen, whether one makes a habit of cooking Asian dishes or not.


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  1. Dried shrimp paste is a common ingredient in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking as well, and, at least in my limited experience, has quite a strong smell. I ordered something in a restaurant once described only as a “green bean sambal”. When it arrived, my husband gave me a look that said, “Oh my god, you’re not really going to eat that?” and diners at adjacent tables were wrinkling their noses.

    The dish was delicious, but I’ll admit even I couldn’t stomach the idea of taking the leftovers home.

    Comment by Wendy Shaffer — January 7, 2006 #

  2. I don’t know much about Indonesian and Malaysian cooking, myself–just a bit, which is why they haven’t been mentioned much in these posts. But I have a friend who went to Indonesia last summer and she told me when she came back that there were some pretty seriously stinky dishs–now that I think on it–they probably involved shrimp paste.

    It is strong stuff, no doubt. I know when I have added a dollup of it to a hot wok, there is usually a very intense few moments of less than pleasant olfactory sensations.

    Most of the time, though, I have used it in Thai curry pastes, where it is mixed in successfully with a lot of other flavors, which makes it much, much more palatable.

    Comment by Barbara — January 7, 2006 #

  3. Hi Barbara,
    The grey shrimp paste you mentioned is also used in shrimp paste chicken, a common dish here in Singapore & Malaysia, where a good dollop of it is added to marinate chicken (along with cornstarch and other ingredients), which is later deep fried. The more “stinking” shrimp paste is locally called “belachan”. There are two versions of belachan – dark brown, sold in rectangular blocks and pinkish, usually sold in circular chunks. Both are suppose to add flavour and depth to local dishes. I know of households who have a dedicated frying pan to pan fry the belachan before they add it to the main dish. The smell really sticks to cookware and it can stick up the whole house for days! Shirley

    Comment by Shirley — January 13, 2006 #

  4. Thank for adding that, Shirley–it helps to hear from people with personal experience in Malaysian/Singaporan food, because I have so little.

    Big dollups of shrimp paste so strong that they stink up metal pans sound hardcore scary!

    I hope that the chicken tastes good after all of that!

    Comment by Barbara — January 13, 2006 #

  5. What do the dried shrimp you’re talking about look like? I’ve seen two different-looking kinds here, but they’re both found in the Hispanic/Mexican sections in my area.

    One is little pink/white, shriveled, mini-versions of what looks like boiled shrimp.

    The other look like full-sized, maroon/brown with their shells on. They remind me of when we were kids and collected what we called locusts, but were actually cicada shells.

    Would either of those kinds of dried shrimps work for your kind of cooking? Or do the dried shrimp have to come from the Asian markets? We have Asian ‘areas’ that carry lots of sauces and canned items, but to get anything beyond that, we have to go to the Asian market. We have two nearby: one is small and friendly, but the larger one has an odor that most westerners aren’t used to, and some of the employees ‘hooted’ at me (I don’t know why they’d do that if I was a potential cash customer, I swear I tried not to wrinkle my nose).

    Comment by Sherri — January 9, 2007 #

  6. The pink white shriveled kind are the ones you want to use!

    The odor you smelled likely came from several sources: fermented fish products, dried fish products and fermented vegetables or tofu/beans and the like. Those scents are strong, and take getting used to. Me–they don’t bother me at all anymore, but I used to lead tours of a local supermarket sized Asian grocery in Maryland, and lots of Americans were put off by the smells.

    Stick with the smaller, friendlier market and build a rapport with the shop owners and workers. You will find, that if you get someone with good language skills, you can go far by asking how to cook with an ingredient, or what they personally use this sort of tofu or vegetable with.

    The lady who owns the local market and I have long conversations about cooking and share recipes all the time. She has taught me invaluable tips. Also–you may find customers willing to strike up conversations about food as well in the smaller stores. You can learn a lot that way.

    Then, after you have learned the ropes at the smaller store, go back to the big place and don’t worry about the hoots. You will see familiar stuff from the smaller store, but lots more that is unfamiliar–and lots that is utterly cool, too! It is fun to shop in one of those big places–especially in their produce department, but it can be overwhelming at first.

    Comment by Barbara — January 9, 2007 #

  7. Thanks Barbara! I’m going back to the smaller Asian store to see if I can find a few unami ingredients you taught us about.

    Comment by Sherri — January 10, 2007 #

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