BOOK REVIEW: "UMANI" - WHAT'S  DELECTABLE  ON  THE TABLE

MANILA, JANUARY 25, 2010
(STAR)  KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - Such a lovely book is Pinoy Umami: The Heart of Philippine Cuisine, joining other superlative tomes on this heartwarming field such as the recent Kulinarya and the National Book Award-winning The Governor-General’s Kitchen, among others.

All of 226 pages in a large, square, coffee-table book format, each one enhanced by appealing photographs and attractively designed, the book is published by Ajinomoto Philippines Corporation, and credits Eugene Imm as executive editor and Cid Reyes as managing editor. The book concept is by Nonna Nañagas while book design is by the veteran craftsman Dopy Doplon.

The team certainly makes its mark with a handsome collectible whose cover features an oil painting of National Artist Carlos V. “Botong” Francisco — titled “Sinigang” — as a quintessential stamp of identity that appropriately glories in the subject.

I now regret failing to attend the book’s launching at Ayala Museum last November, if the gustatory contents are any indication of a possible buffet table that graced the occasion.

The painter-critic and bookmaker Cid Reyes intros in his foreword titled “Discovering Pinoy Umami”:

“Mmmm... Masarap. Malasa. Malinamnam. Manyaman. Marasa. Manamit. Lami!

“The many Philippine words meaning delicious, tasty and flavorful — rich with their varying nuances and delightful intensities — attest to the Filipinos’ appreciation of good food. They roll off the tongue, by turns as interjections of delight and as dreamy recollections of a mouth-watering culinary experience.

“Already a new addition to the lexicon is emerging — the word is ‘umami’ or ‘ma-umami’ in Tagalog. Alongside its counterparts, matamis (sweet), maasim (sour), mapait (bitter), and maalat (salty), ma-umami is the fifth basic taste which is best described as the test of savoriness, richness or deliciousness. Today Filipinos are awakening to this new word for a long ignored basic taste.

“From the humble pandesal (meaning “bread of salt”) with a slice of cheese made from carabao’s milk to the sumptuously saucy meat and poultry dishes, umami pervades the Philippine palate.”

Seventeen superlative essays by notable foodies cum writers bolster the notion that this additional basic taste, discovered by the Japanese and now said to be appreciated and adopted universally, has always been with us, detected by our tongues in whichever local landscape we may find ourselves smacking our lips.

It should be noted that the repetition of the letter “M” in this new word doubles the bilabial experience in articulating a culinary laud, only one less than “malinamnam.”

Corazon S. Alvina leads off with “Filipino Cuisine: A Narrative Degustacion”; which together with “The Way We Cook: Eating to Our Heart’s Content” by China S. Trinidad compose the first section billed as “The Filipino Cuisine.” These are the general essays that range through timelines and an archipelago.

The second section, “Understanding Umami,” offers a knowledgeable, fact-rife history of the discovery and growing awareness of umami, with essays by Dr. Josefa S. Eusebio on “The Source of Delicious Taste: Understanding Glutamate and Umami”; gourmand, chef, and food mag editor Nancy Reyes Lumen on “The ‘Um’ Factor: It’s all Over the Filipino Menu”; and, again, Trinidad, with “From Market to Kitchen: The Way to Umami.”

Dr. Eusebio’s signature piece is particularly engrossing for its scientific factoids:

“As the term umami is Japanese, coined about a hundred years ago, people who are unfamiliar with the word and concept may think it is something mysterious, mystifying, or inexplicable because it is often misunderstood.”

“... Umami is the delicate subtle taste imparted by substances, namely, glutamate/glutamic acid, and nucleotides such as inosinate and guanylate, all these occurring naturally in many foods including meats, fish, dairy products and vegetables, and seasonings such as soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, and MSG, among others. The taste of umami blends well with others to expand and round out flavors.

“... When Filipinos eat pork adobo cooked with soy sauce, chicken tinola seasoned with patis, or vegetable pinakbet sauteéd with tomatoes and bagoong, the superbly rich savory taste which we enjoy is, in fact, umami.”

The essay goes on to detail the discovery of this fifth basic taste by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, when laboratory experiments succeeded in isolating from konbu (a sea weed vegetable) the substance that imparted such savoriness: the amino acid glutamate. Extracted from konbu, the glutamic acid was transformed into crystals by combining it with sodium, calcium, potassium, among others, until monosodium glutamate or MSG proved to make the crystals most stable while retaining the strong umami taste.

Thus started “the era of a new food manufacturing industry and Ajinomoto was the first to produce and market MSG, using the patented discovery of Dr. Ikeda....

“At times, Ajinomoto is misconstrued as MSG rather than a company or brand, and umami and MSG are often wrongly thought to be one and the same. Umami is the taste of the glutamate from MSG. But the glutamate present in many natural foods [asparagus, ripe tomatoes, meat, seafoods, aged cheeses and mushrooms are among the samples cited] also gives the umami taste. The discovery of umami as the fifth basic taste is a significant and outstanding milestone in culinary history. Umami would revolutionize food forever.”

Lest the suspicion start simmering that this book is veritably an “apologia pro MSG” as rendered through a corporate literary promotion, given the anti-MSG stance effected in the West, Dr. Eusebio offers a comparative note.

“The Japanese use MSG for umami as the French and Americans use bouillon. MSG is known in China and Japan as the ‘king of seasonings.’ Based on the widespread use of both soy and fish sauces, MSG and bouillon have been an important part of western and eastern cuisine.”

The essay that follows, Reyes Lumen’s, zeroes in on the “Um” factor in the Pinoy menu, citing our classic comfort food that is chicken tinola as empowered by patis, among many other delectable umami-rich treats.

The longest section, billed as “A Journey to the Islands of Umami,” explores our wealth of diverse regional offerings with the following fascinating essays: “Mekeni’s Meals: Food in Times of Famine and Feast” by Alex Castro; “Ilocano Cooking: Making Do, Living Well” by Rene Guatlo; “Cavite Cuisine: Geography as Culinary Destiny” by Guillermo Ramos; “Kulinarya Tagala: Southern Comfort and the Pleasurable Taste of Southern Tagalog” also by Ramos; “Bicolano Pleasures: Memories of a Bicolano Kitchen” by Alya B. Honasan; “Vanishing Cuisine: Kitchen in Crisis” by Dez G. Bautista; “Cordillera: A Cornucopia of Mountain Flavors” by Angelica Subido; “Ilonggo Food: A Fusion of Flavors” by Delia Gamboa Besa and Maya Besa Roxas; “Savoring Bisdak: Cebuano Cuisine Then and Now” by Reuben Ramas Cañete; “Maranao Meals: The Art of Pagana Maranao” by Zenaida D. Pangandaman-Gania; “Umami Feasting: The Philippine Fiesta” by Nancy Reyes Lumen; and “Daddy, Anong Ulam?: (Cooking Lessons My Father Taught Me” by Nonna Nañagas.

Wait, there’s more. Partnering the coffee-table book is an invaluable, full-color, 122-page book titled “Pinoy Umami Recipes.”

I can’t wait to find the time to try out some if not most of the 100 recipes that include regional specialties, such as dinakdakan from the Ilocos, tidtad from Pampanga, hardinera from Quezon, kansi and laswa from Negros, and pinasawan na atoan from Mindanao (catfish with coconut milk, turmeric, etc. — and of course Ajinomoto Umami Seasoning).

Let me at it. And let the mmmm’s meander memorably all the way to mama’s milk.

* * *

Note: To join me in this veritable moving feast, you may visit www.ajinomoto.com.ph for many other recipes.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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