An Evening of Umami and Shokuiku

2017 January 31
by Stacy Smith

Last night I had the opportunity to interpret for Chef Kiyomi Mikuni at an event at Japan Society entitled “Umami and Other Japanese Culinary Secrets.” Mikuni is an entertaining speaker whose wide-ranging presentation covered everything from how important it is to develop taste buds at a young age to working with Japanese children on 食育 (shokuiku, or dietary education). Mikuni runs the gourmet French restaurant Hotel de Mikuni in Tokyo, but his culinary journey started in a fishing village in Hokkaido. Growing up he would go out with his fisherman father, and enjoy the fruits of the sea bestowed upon them. At 15 he went to Sapporo to work as a chef at a hotel there before moving to Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. At 20 he was sent to Geneva to be the chef at the Japanese Embassy, where he was able to train and learn the basics of French cuisine. Upon his return to Tokyo, he worked at a French bistro before opening Hôtel de Mikuni in 1985.

Following his presentation, Mikuni took part in a Q&A with food and culture journalist Nancy Matsumoto. Her probing questions touched on chefs Mikuni admires (Alice Water and Thomas Keller), as well as the importance of shokuiku in the U.S. Mikuni’s overarching point was that umami (often referred to as “the fifth taste”) is not something exclusive to Japan, and it has been found all over the world since ancient times.  Although recent innovations such as “umami bombs” seek to increase the amount of umami found in a dish, Mikuni’s opinion was that there is no need to overdue it and that one umami element per dish is sufficient. His presentation concluded with a demonstration preparing two kinds of 出汁 (dashi or soup stock), one made from dried bonito from Hokkaido that was worth $400 dollars!   The other featured chicken and tomatoes, onions and other vegetables rich in umami.

It was interesting to hear Mikuni’s insights, but even better was getting to sample his creations at the tasting that closed the night.  Aside from the two dashis, other dishes offered were Sauteed Mushrooms in Mayonnaise Sauce with Sesame Dressing (my favorite), Rice Omelette with Ketchup Sauce, Curry Rice with Soy Cheese Topping and Miso Cappuccino.  There was also Matsuno Midori sake on hand to wash everything down.  I’ll be in Tokyo on business in both February and March, and I look forward to paying a visit to Hotel de Mikuni during one of those trips!

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