“Look, I have goose bumps,” Suvir Saran told me.
It was true. He had goose bumps.
Takashi, you see, had — on stage, in front of everybody at the Worlds of Flavor conference — added ground duck to dashi and then used a coffee siphon to infuse it with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaf.
It seemed to me like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Indeed, I'd seen a coffee siphon — you might have seen these things, especially if you were drinking coffee in a hotel in Bangkok in the mid-’90s as they were all over that city at the time; they look like glass, high-tech percolators — used to infuse similar herbs into lobster stock at David Burke Town House in New York last year.
But Suvir told me that Japanese chefs would have regarded such acts as desecration of sacred dashi — the broth made by steeping kombu seaweed and then skipjack flakes (often called bonito flakes, but I’m told it’s really skipjack) in hot water. Dashi is the Great Mother Broth of Japanese cuisine, the source of much of the umami that makes their food so delicious.
For the record, and I wish this were the last time I’d have to write this but I know it's not, umami is basically just the flavor of protein. That’s it. It can be enhanced by exposing more of the bits of protein that trigger the umami receptors in our mouths — the amino acid glutamate along with certain nucleotides and other assorted protein components — but that’s all it is. It's one of our five tastes, along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. It’s not some mystical quality from the mysterious Orient. It’s just a taste. If you want to know what it tastes like, put some powdered MSG on your tongue.
If I’d taken a shot of shochu every time someone on stage said “umami” during the conference I’m pretty sure I would have died from alcohol poisoning.
Anyway, Takashi — who is the chef-owner of his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, although he’s probably better known for his work as executive chef of Tribute in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Mich. — souped up his dashi and served it around sashimi of geoduck clam that he garnished with sliced lotus root that sandwiched a shrimp mousseline and then was dipped in cornstarch and sautéed. Also in the dish was shiso leaf and two pieces of daikon, and the picture of it that accompanies this blog entry was sent to me from the smart phone of Will Dunbar, food & beverage director for the River Rock Casino in Geyserville, Calif., who had the presence of mind to take the picture.
In his notes, Will declared the dish to be “ridiculous,” but that, I soon learned, is the word he uses for foods that are unexpected, extraordinary and brilliant.
But Suvir was sure that the 39 chefs visiting from Japan would have found Takashi’s dish to be ridiculous in the more usual sense of the word and were possibly ridiculing it at that moment, while we were enjoying the day’s buffet lunch and congratulating Takashi, who gave us fist bumps and wandered off.
Then Suvir showed me his goose bumps.