It has been a while since I have actually reviewed a book here, so I thought I would redress the situation with one of the cookbooks I received as a gift during the Generic Winter Holiday celebration.
My regular readers are probably aready a bit familiar with this work, as they have been reading my series of posts on the subject of umami, or the fifth basic taste. Written by David and Anna Kasabian, The Fifth Taste: Cooking With Umami, is a very good introduction to the scientific basis for quantifying umami as a basic taste, with simplified explanations of the chemistry and physiology involved that are enlightening, but not overly complicated.
In truth, I mainly was glad to have the book for the opening chapters alone: the history of umami, the recent scientific findings that confirmed that it was one of the basic tastes that the human tongue can discern, the revelation that umami was the flavor of amino acids, and the listing of ingredients that feature umami were all of great value to me. These chapters take up the first 33 pages of the book; most of the rest of the slender volume (296 pages altogether) is taken up by an extensive index, a list of ingredient sources, a profile of the chefs who contributed recipes and of course, the recipes that make up the meat of the book.
What I found most interesting about the book is that while the authors list countless Asian ingredients as great sources of umami, very few of the recipes, even including the chefs’ contributions, really looked to Asian culinary traditions for inspiration. Nor, generally, were Asian umami ingredients used to flavor Western-style foods–primarily, the recipes contained ingredients such as tomatoes, beans, red wines, anchovies, mushrooms and corn. Over and over, these same ingredients were repeated in the recipes, while fish sauce, which is touted in the first chapter as probably the richest source of umami, is relegated to only a handful of recipes.
In truth, while I value the general information in the opening chapters, I was not overly impressed with the quality or range of recipes in the rest of the book. Chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa all contributed recipes, and while many of them looked quite good, none of them particularly impressed me as anything new, earth-shattering or even that they particularly were created in order to boost the umami flavors to the maximum level.
They mostly seemed thrown together, rather in a hurry, and tacked on as an afterthought, in order to supplement and pad the rather limited amount of information present in the book.
That said, I did enjoy and eagerly devour the information on umami that the book presented, even as I was disappointed by the recipes, and I have since cooked several dishes where I added small amounts of umami-containing ingredients to see if it boosted the overall flavor profile of the dish.
Indeed, it did.
And for that, I do have the authors to thank, because it was their slender volume which opened my eyes to the possibilities of umami.
All in all, I am glad I have the book, and I feel that I can recommend it to all folks who like to geek about and research obscure topics in food. While umami is presently an obscure topic and this book is probably the first cookbook devoted entirely to the subject, I do not think it will be the last. I am curious, of course, to see what future research into the fifth taste will bring us, but until then, I will keep tinkering away with my Asian umami ingredients, and see what wonders I can cook up on my own.
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