Professor Charles Spence takes us to Japan and the latest flavour-enhancing ingredient. Kokumi in your cocktails anyone?

For those still struggling to get their heads around the mysterious fifth taste from the east, namely the proteinaceous taste of umami, then ‘kokumi’ (meaning ‘rich taste’), the latest taste sensation to emerge from Japan, may, admittedly, be a step too far.

Japan’s Ajinomoto corporation has long been the world’s foremost producer of monosodium glutamate (MSG) – this is the crystalline white powder (though once it was brown) which helps to add an umami-like taste to food. Once again promoted by Ajinomoto (which first isolated the relevant compounds in the 1980s), kokumi is the name given to the glutamyl peptides that, when added to food or drink, help to make them taste more rounded or delicious, depending on who you ask.

According to Nicole Warren (incidentally the PR & marketing supervisor at Ajinomoto): “It creates this roundness you never knew you wanted unless you tasted it.” Perhaps this should not come as such a surprise since kokumi peptides are naturally present in foods with higher sources of protein.

Although the term first appeared in English more than 30 years ago, kokumi is strange in that, unlike umami which has a savoury, salty, brothy kind of taste, kokumi compounds taste of, well, absolutely nothing. Furthermore, the kokumi sensation (or better said effect on taste/flavour/mouthfeel) is not achieved by a single molecule, rather it is activated by glutamyl peptides that can naturally be found in fermented foods. However, these compounds also occur (naturally) in beer, bread, and chicken soup. But it is what their addition to a recipe does to the other tastes, and to the overall flavour profile, not to mention the mouthfeel, that has got so many of those working in the food industry so excited.

Magic compounds

Given the above, one might have expected that every Tom, Dick, and Harry of the kitchen would have been sprinkling a little of those magic kokumi compounds into their dishes. And there are, in fact, hints that kokumi compounds are sometimes added to processed foods in order to enhance both their satiating and sensory qualities. And yet, just like umami, there is a danger that this ‘chemical white powder’ from the east might be tarred with the same brush: namely, the fear of public approbation. After all, it was back in the 1970s that the expression Chinese Restaurant Syndrome first appeared. This was the name given to the suggestion that Chinese restaurants in the United States were adding MSG to their food, and that this was giving customers headaches.

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Although the original letter in The New England Journal of Medicine that caused this wave of concern may well have been a spoof, one can’t help but detect a certain racism in the western backlash that ensued. And, as Jeffrey Steingarten once asked, if the claim were true that Chinese food caused headaches, then why doesn’t everyone in China have a headache?

When I speak to chefs such as Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory (who has featured kokumi in one of his blogs) about why he doesn’t use them more in his dishes then the complaint that comes back is that it can lead to everything tasting a bit samey. That is, the contrasts and sharper tastes/flavours tend to be lost as kokumi rounds off the whole taste experience.

Nevertheless, while kokumi might not be the solution to every flavour challenge, it is probably still worth experimenting for yourself to see what it can add to a serve. As to where to find it, kokumi compounds are to be in yeasty spreads such as Vegemite and Marmite (and part of why adding a spoonful of these salty substances can do so much to enhance the taste of one’s stocks and stews). They are also to be found in aged parmesan cheese, garlic water, and green tea, not to mention dry-cured lab meat. RC Fine foods also produces its own kokumi powder from maltodextrin and pulverised fermented soybeans.

So, even if the savoury end of the taste/flavour spectrum is not as well chartered in the cocktail category (though growing), you might at least be curious to see what adding a dash of kokumi could do to the taste of the drinks you serve.