Note: If you think MSG is evil, read this first.
The most common items we use to enhance natural flavors in food are NaCl and MSG, which can be used in their pure forms or as components of other things, like soy sauce or cheese. The former adds saltiness, and the latter adds umami, but they work best when they’re used together, and conventional cooking wisdom states that savory food with appropriately tuned levels of salt and MSG will be delicious. However, there are at least two other known compounds that contribute to an umami sensation: inosinate and guanylate. Inosinate is most readily extracted from fermented or dried meat and seafood, such as katsuobushi. Guanylate is prevalent in vegetables, especially dried mushrooms. Both provide food with depth of flavor and a hearty, satisfying quality.
It is easy to buy MSG, but I have never been able to track down salts of inosinate or guanylate in less than industrial quantities. I’ve wanted to experiment with them in the kitchen for a while, ever since I realized that dashi made with a combination of kombu, katsuobushi, and dried shiitake is much more umami than dashi made from just one or two of the three. I also imagined that the ability to fine-tune combinations of seasoning salts to truly enhance the natural qualities of ingredients could be a very useful tool – for example, perhaps a tuna steak seasoned with inosinate would taste more strongly of itself than one seasoned with salt or MSG, or perhaps a similar effect could be achieved by seasoning mushrooms with guanylate.
After scouring the internet to no avail, I gave up on finding these compounds and put it out of mind. But then, something caught my eye as I perused the salt section of a grocery store in Japan: something called Ajinomoto Haimi. Its label boasted ‘3 kinds of umami’ derived from ‘katsuobushi, kombu, and shiitake’ – the holy trinity of umami. I examined the label; the ingredients were listed as salt, glutamic acid, and something called ‘5’-ribonucleotides.’ I was confused, but still convinced that this contained inosinate and guanylate, so I bought a bag.
At home, I Googled 5′-ribonucleotides and discovered that this is simply a food labelling term that denotes a combination of disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate. So I was right after all. The only problem was, I couldn’t separate out the inosinate and guanylate from each other or from the MSG. But no matter – I was still curious to see how it differed as a seasoning.
Enter the corn. Corn with peppers, to be precise. I divided it into three ramekins and seasoned one with salt, one with MSG, and one with Haimi, to see exactly how they differed in their effects. Here are my tasting notes:
Salt: mineral, bright, sweet, potent
MSG: subtle, moreish, back of the tongue, lingering
Haimi: distinctly meaty, mouth-filling, full, rich, intense yet mellow, eerily long-lasting
What I found most interesting was that Haimi provided by far the most profound umami flavor, but it wasn’t necessarily the best seasoning for the corn. That honor went to salt – it simply matched the bright, crisp, naturally sweet flavor of the corn and peppers best and seemed to make them really sing.
It was fascinating, and I’m glad I have the Haimi on hand so I can keep experimenting. It may not have been that tasty with corn, but I have a feeling it might be with meat or fish. It could become quite a useful tool if I figure out how best to use it.