Kokumi, the enigmatic “sensation” that enriches the perception of food and could improve our diet

Kokumi, the enigmatic

Akira doesn’t know how to explain himself. He stammers a few words, he thinks, he says that it may be “something stationary”, but finally he comes to a conclusion: “It is very difficult to verbalize what the kokumi”. The translation from Japanese to Spanish is “flavor with body” or “depth in flavor”. Discovered by science at the end of the 20th century, specialists agree that it could revolutionize the way we perceive food and lead to healthier cooking.

“When you make a mushroom stew it is very rich. that tastes like umami [que es considerado el quinto sabor]. But if you let it park, then it generates kokumi. It doesn’t have so much to do with a product, but with a feeling,” he said. Akira Takeuchijapanese cook. With few words, practically without gesturing, but determined to make himself understood, Takeuchi emphasized that “there is nothing kokumibut it is the end of a meal.”

“The kokumi It was identified around 1990 from a laboratory study where it began to be recognized that some garlic extracts have a huge impact when added to other foods,” he explained. Monica Katz, medical nutrition specialist.

The restaurant's curry "Harakiri of a" It is based on kombu seaweed broth that, mixed with different spices, gives depth (kokumi) to the pork.
The curry at the “Harakiri de una” restaurant is based on kombu seaweed broth which, mixed with different spices, gives depth (kokumi) to the porkAlejandro Guyot – THE NATION

It is a pleasure? Is it a seasoning? Is it a particular food? The answer to all these questions is “no”. Specialists indicate that it is a “sensation” regarding how we perceive flavors. In this sense, Katz specified that the kokumi could be considered aenhancer” or “flavor enhancer”.

However, there are certain foods with potential kokumias the onion, garlic, yeast, and some cheeses. Although these substances do not have a particular taste in themselves, seem to make other foods taste and feel better. “The onion, if you eat it alone, tastes bitter, maybe sweet, but in combination with fat or butter, you find depth. It has to be combined with a fatty material or with a broth, Dashifor it to take on body,” said Takeuchi, cooking consultant at Harakiri of aand owner and cook of Sanzaro.

Until today, there are five recognized flavors: sweet, bitter, salty, acid and umami. The latter, the youngest of all, was identified in 1907 by a Japanese professor, Kikunae Ikedathrough the Dashi kombu seaweed broth umami It means “tasty” or “delicious”, and is linked to glutamic acid, one of the main amino acids that make up proteins.

Akira Takeuchi, Japanese chef who prepares his meals based on the kokumi concept
Akira Takeuchi, Japanese chef who prepares his meals based on the kokumi conceptAlejandro Guyot – THE NATION

“A new flavor is recognized, not discovered. In other words, it was always there and there are receptors that perceive it. Just as absolute hearing is, and there are people who can distinguish certain scales of sounds, it also happens with taste”, explained Julio Bragagnolo, specialist in nutrition and head of the Nutrition and Diabetes service at the Ramos Mejía Hospital.

“I always liked to eat. I watched how my mother and grandmother cooked, and I began to practice with them, ”Takeuchi explained, about his beginnings as a cook. Originally from a city near Tokyo, Akira did not understand why they insisted on healthy cooking. He realized that they used fermentationsas well as other types of cooking, longerand that this improved flavor without the need to add salt, sugar and fat to foods.

In addition to knowing better, you will incorporate better eating habits. I used a lot of salt without thinking. The first thing people do is add salt to food. However, the key is to combine ingredients to generate different flavors but without one invading the other. If you use seasoned cheese, you don’t put salt on it because it already has the cheese”, explained the cook.

And he clarified: “There is talk that with the kokumi taste buds are enlarged. You feel much more, it is a flavor enhancer. It is not that the food is tastier, you perceive it more”.

For Takeuchi, if you clean the fish right after you catch it and let it sit, you can add miso, soy sauce, or seaweed to it to add more umami and make it kokumi.
For Takeuchi, if you clean the fish right after you catch it and let it sit, you can add miso, soy sauce, or seaweed to it to add more umami and make it kokumi.Alejandro Guyot – THE NATION

In this sense, Katz indicated: “It gives a kind of roundness, a very interesting flavor closure in the mouth and allows you to increase the perception of sweet, salty or umami. That is you can lower glutamic acid, sugar, and salt with the kokumi”.

There are two peptides that are responsible for this new sensation: the glutathione and the gamma-glutamyl-valyl-glycine compoundwhat bind to calcium receptors (CaSR) in the mouth and intestines to identify the kokumi. “[El primero] It is a peptide that forms proteins, it is a powerful antioxidant that we have in the body, and it is essential for the human defense system. But, in addition, it has this impressive function, which is to give flavors body and viscosity,” explained Katz.

Regarding the second compound, the medical specialist in nutrition explained: “They are amino acids, which are the bricks that form proteins. It is wonderful: in the age of chronic diseases, we are talking about improving tastes without adding salt, fat and sugar, using only amino acids”.

Akira does not doubt: “Yes or yes, the base has to be Dashi”. It is the main element to generate kokumi. And he specified that in the restaurant Harakiri of a prepare Dashi of three ingredients: shiitake mushrooms, kombu seaweed and smoked katsuobushi —dry bonito fish—. “From these broths we prepare different dishes Akira pointed out. To make sushi, we cure the fish. Fresh fish, just out of the sea, are not so tasty, because they are not parked and do not have umami. In Argentina, nobody cleans the fish that has just come out of the sea, and they rot much faster if the viscera are left. But if you clean them right after you catch them and let them park, you can add miso, soy sauce, or seaweed to them, to add more umami and get to kokumi”, he added.

Kinokobutter shoyu means sautéed mushrooms with soy sauce and butter;  the latter is what gives depth (Kokumi) to the dish
Kinokobutter shoyu means sautéed mushrooms with soy sauce and butter; the latter is what gives depth (Kokumi) to the dishAlejandro Guyot – THE NATION

Regarding how the Argentine palate receives its food, he assured that “people realize the difference in flavors”, and added that to develop the taste buds and be able to perceive more flavors “you have to eat”.

In this sense, Bragagnolo highlighted: “We know this type of sensation from garlic and onion, but sometimes we cannot perceive it so easily. It is a very abstract sense and there are people better able to perceive it”.

However, Takeuchi says that at his restaurant, where he makes sushi, people come back because they perceive something different: a secret. “I make cured preparations, which gives it a deeper flavor and you can feel it. All the senses are involved when feeling the kokumi: the depth, continuity of the flavor is kokumi, but it is also the smell, the aroma, the sight, the sensation”.