Following the lead of our previous articles on the principles of five in Japanese cooking - gomi (the five tastes), gokan (the five senses),goshiki (the five colors), goho (the five cooking methods), and the five key ingredients remembered with the mnemonicsa, shi, su, se, so - we will now look at, or shall I say savor, the five tastes: gomi.
Eating is an experience of all five of senses, not just taste. Even so, one might argue that taste is the most important of the five. For without it, even the ripest fruit and most artfully presented array of dishes would be little more than pretty objects, albeit ones we can eat.
The Flavors We Savor
The concept ofgomi is likely familiar.Gomiconsists of the five tastes we all know and love, to varying degrees: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
To make something delicious, we must pay attention to how these tastes interact with one another, how they blend and how they oppose one another.
Each taste has its own nuance and its own traits, which are quite complex in and of themselves. For instance, the sweetness of a piece of cake isn’t the same sweetness as a ripe cherry, just as the sour of a lemon isn’t the same as the sour of a lime. Not to mention that the range of bitterness is even larger.
Washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, uses gomi in such a way that different dishes may highlight different flavors, having ingredients from one dish complement those in another, ultimately creating a feeling of satisfaction over the course of a full meal.
When it comes to gomi, however, the flavor we may not be quite as familiar with is the elusive taste of umami. It is often described as being savory or meaty, but actually comes from how we experience the flavors of certain amino acids and glutamates (think mushrooms, cooked meat, and soy sauce.)
Japanese cooking features umami at its very core. Whether it comes from glutamate packed kombu (kelp), smoky katsuobushi flakes, dried shiitake, or some combination of those ingredients, basic dashi broth is a foundational element of what makes Japanese cuisine so umami rich. That’s not to mention many fermented ingredients like shōyu and miso that are also full of umami.
In the end, it is about utilizing the five methods, gohon, in such a way that balances the five flavors throughout a meal. We might look to the Japanese tradition of ichijū sansai, or one soup and three dishes, to see how that works. Ichijū sansai is the typical format found in Japanese home cooking that consists of one bowl of rice, a side of pickles, one soup, and one main dish along with two side dishes. Each dish highlights its best flavors, all coming together in one delicious meal.