"When I cook at home, I don't use too much salt, cream, cheese, or oily sauces and dressings," writes chef and author Sonoko Sakai. "I use dashi. It's the fragrant stock that forms the base of miso soup and seasoning for many Japanese dishes. The most popular ingredients for making dashi are dried bonito flakes and konbu seaweed. When you combine konbu and bonito flakes, the natural occuring amino acids in the konbu and bonito flakes have a synergistic effect on the umami scale."
And when you add dried shitake mushrooms to the bonito and the konbu, Sakai says by phone from Seattle, the umami does more than triple in taste, it "accelerates."
"I want all three amino acids to react to each other and give the deepest flavor it can attain," Sakai explains. "If a food has any protein in it, you have a way of adding umami flavor to your food. It's just more subtle."
Umami is the so-called fifth taste, after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The word is derived from delicious and scientists recently "discovered" it; the Japanese have known it for centuries. Umami forms the taste basis of the best beloved Japanese cooked foods. Sakai will show how to make dashi and shio-koji in a March 29 umami workshop at SHED and will showcase those flavors at a March 30 dinner she's cooking with Seattle chef Mutsuko Soma.
Sakai humbly describes herself as a "good home cook," but she's also a filmmaker, an author, and an amateur food historian who grew up in Japan, has lived all over the world, and is now settled in Los Angeles. She's contributed to the Los Angeles Times for over a decade, paying her own way to Japan to research historic foods and preparation methods.
"I believe in preserving Japanese culture," she says. "I grew up in the '60s in Japan, when much of our lives were very artisan-driven. People did everything by hand. It was an unbelievably artisanal world and I remember the labor, what the food tasted like when people made it by hand. I remember the fisherman. It sounds like it was a very primitive time, but of course the people were very sophisticated, yet Japan was still very traditional. Then modernism came in, and things like koji were wiped away by the advent of MSG. It's a chemical, and I just feel that people are losing touch with what is natural. I thought that I could come back to my roots and start to preserve my food culture and try to introduce that here."
Koji is a black rice mold that farmers used to naturally cultivate but which, Sakai says, is "made in laboratories now."
She continues: "When you start talking about koji, you're really touching the foundation of Japanese food culture. Our diet evolved around rice and our ancestors found a way to use rice that was fermented in a beneficial way. Fermenting is borderline; food can go rotten if you get the wrong bacteria, but if you get the right, beneficial culture to grow on it, it can last. Koji mold inoculates the rice and acts as a seasoning to season all of our foods, whether it's pickles or meat and fish and chicken – it's something we've used in our cultures for centuries."
Adding sea salt to koji results in something called "shio-koji," another essential Japanese food ingredient. Sakai says that the tradition of shio-koji had nearly been lost but "just in the last five years, it's come back. Small, family-owned koji shops were going out of business because of the Kikkomen industrial brand."
"Some of the koji makers got together and read old manuscripts looking for other ways to use it and found that it could be used in place of salt. It not only adds a sweet mellow flavor, but cuts back your intake of salt by 50 percent and it's proactive, so it helps with digestion. Koji can also produce sweet, inoculated rice, and you could use it as a sugar substitute. Japanese people were taking it for granted, but when you really start to analyze it, you realize how our ancestors came up with such wise ways to preserve food. It's all for preservation and to promote health. It was developed from having a rice culture."
Japan also has a distinct noodle culture and the search for buckwheat with which to make traditional soba noodles is another of Sakai's passions. She was so frustrated in her efforts to source buckwheat in the U.S. that she began a campaign, found on her commongrains.com website, to promote its production. Most of our buckwheat goes from the fields of eastern Washington directly to Japan. Americans haven't developed a taste for it. Or rather, we had but lost our taste for this indigenous crop, which fed such as Thomas Jefferson in our early days.
"I'm helping with heirloom grains, it's all a part of the sustainable agriculture movement that I found myself involved with," Sakai says. "When you start looking for good flour, you end up there – you start looking for a farmer, and if you can't find a farmer, you try to make one."
Buckwheat was the common thread that led Sakai to meet Seattle-based chef Mutsuko Soma. "We are the only two people on the West Coast interested in buckwheat," Sakai jokes. They met through Sakai's commongrains website, where Soma spent time learning more about how to locally source the grain traditionally used for soba noodles. "It's like soba match.com," Sakai laughs. The two chefs plan a multi-course meal based around soba noodles, dashi, shio-koji, and othe traditional Japanese food stuffs when they come together at SHED on March 30.
Suffice it to say that Sakai is one busy woman. "I don't wish I could clone myself," she says, "but I do wish I could go back in time. Sometimes I wish I were 25. I could use the energy!"
Sonoko Sakai leads an umami workshop on Saturday, March 29, at 3pm. $95; includes a four-course meal. Advance tickets required.