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Umami: the authentic taste of Japan

Umami: the authentic taste of Japan

When visiting Japan, you’ll often be spoilt for choices with the large variety of flavours available for many items—from savoury tonkotsu (豚骨 pork bone-broth) and shoyu (醤油 soy sauce) ramen to the assorted variations of KitKats—the overwhelming food choices is often a “happy problem” faced by many travellers in Japan. And yet when we ponder on this question: what’s one thing that sets Japanese food apart from other cuisines? 

 

The answer is umami (うま味)—it is recognised as “the fifth taste” globally despite its Japanese name. Umami, which translates into “good taste”, is exactly that: a pleasant savoury taste that induces salivation. It’s a taste that we are all familiar with, and yet find it challenging to identify. Along with the four other tastes–bitter, salty, sweet and sour—umami is found naturally in many ingredients that are inseparable from Japanese cuisine: seaweed, shellfish, crabs, bonito, sake, soy sauce, sashimi, and even rice! Today, I’ll be introducing three products that will allow you to explore and compare the complexity of this authentically Japanese flavour.

 

1. Furikake

A bowl of rice just looks incomplete without toppings. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The significance of rice in Japanese culture is simply irreplaceable. It is the nation’s daily staple, a cultural identity, a driving force of their economy, and the fundamental element in Japanese cuisine. What better way to enjoy a humble bowl of rice at home than with furikake (ふりかけ) sprinkled on top? 

 

(Image credit: JW360º)

 

For furikake fans, you can try this Hokkaido vegetable and seafood furikake seasoning by the HOKKAI YAMATO brand. Hailing from Japan’s northernmost prefecture, this furikake is made with eight vegetables harvested in Hokkaido (北海道): potato, pumpkin, Japanese radish leaf, carrot, sweet corn, onion, asparagus and spinach). A second variation features locally-sourced seafood like salmon, squid, scallop, and kelp from the seas around the prefecture, which is a sure way to enjoy the savoury goodness of umami. There is a little bit of something for everyone here!

 

2. Tsukudani

(Image credit: JR Times / Sue)

 

If you like something with a stronger burst of flavour, consider trying Wajima Umi brand’s Wakame Tsukudani from Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県 Ishikawa-ken). The wakame (ワカメ) seaweed are hand-picked by divers in the Noto Peninsula (能登半島 Noto-hantō) and boiled with a soy sauce-based seasoning, creating the robust flavour that pairs perfectly with rice or porridge. While it is commonly served as a rice topping, the wakame tsukudani (佃煮) can also be eaten on its own as an otsumami (おつまみ finger food) that goes perfectly with beer and sake (酒 Japanese rice wine)—which brings us on to our third item.

 

3. Sake

(Image credit: photoAC)

 

More commonly referred to as nihonshu (日本酒) by the Japanese, sake can be found in a wide range of flavours and varieties. With its increasingly widespread popularity, it is served at most Japanese restaurants and drinking establishments as a staple alcohol along with beer and spirits. While it is an easy drink to enjoy, choosing which to order can be daunting for first-timers—but fret not! I’ll be introducing what to look out for when choosing your sake, and a nifty must-have for both beginners and sake-lovers alike!

 

(Image credit: JW360º)

 

The two things to take note of when choosing your sake is the Rice Polishing Rate (RPR), and whether brewing alcohol is added or not. As sake is made from rice and the rice's outer layer is not ideal for brewing, it has to be stripped off through the polishing process. The RPR refers to the percentage of the rice that remains after the husk of the rice is removed, which in turn determines the sweetness of the sake. The smaller the percentage, the more polishing the rice has gone through. This type of sake is known as Junmai (純米 pure rice).

 

Lastly, the brewing alcohol is an indication of the purity of the sake. The alcohol in sake is produced over time during the fermentation process, and brewing alcohol is often added to speed up this process. The addition of brewing alcohol changes the flavour of the sake: it is characteristically dryer than those without.

 

(Image credit: JR Times / Sue)


Most sake are sold in large glass bottles and may be intimidating to sake-newbies. The good news is, I have the perfect recommendation for you who are keen to sample! Featuring a special packaging designed to celebrate the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in 2015, start your sake adventure with the Shinkansen Sake Cup Set by the Yoshinogawa brand. These sake come in adorable miniature glass cups that are perfect for budding sake enthusiasts to try three different types of sake: Normal, Ginjo (吟醸) and Junmai. What’s more, if you prefer to have your sake served warm, these handy-sized glass cups are designed to be easily heated up by soaking it in hot water.

 

Start exploring with NOMONO's Umami Set  

(Image credit: JR Times / Sue)

 

Can’t wait to hop on and savour the flavours of Japan? Here’s a great deal for you—for a limited time only, enjoy nomono brand’s exclusive Umami Set. At a bundle rate of $55, this set includes:

  • 1 x Hokkaido Furikake Seasoning (Vegetable)
  • 1 x Hokkaido Furikake Seasoning (Seafood)
  • 1 x Wakame Tsukudani
  • 1 x Shinkansen Sake Cup Set

This bundle deal is a perfect way to introduce your friends and loved ones to the robust and authentic flavours of Japan.

 

Until 30 November 2020, you can get nomono’s Umami Set at these places:

 

The Japan Rail Fair by JAPAN RAIL CAFE

–A Virtual Trip to Japan–

20–22 & 27–28 November 2020

 

 

JAPAN RAIL CAFE proudly presents The Japan Rail Fair—the first ever online rail travel fair—to your screens! Learn more about the different aspects of Japan’s railway in this fun-filled week—where there will be exciting activities as well as informative webinars, sharing sessions, and engaging workshops that celebrate the wonders of Japan rail travel. More details will be released in early November, so in the meantime mark your calendars and we’ll see you rail-ly soon!

 

 

Join us in JR STORIES—a series of talks where we share personal travel stories and news on the focused region, featuring our Japan Lover Community. This time, find out more about rail travel in Japan with our guest speakers Rachell (@pxdkitty) as she shares more about her rail travel experiences in eastern Japan.

 

We would also like to feature your JR Stories! Simply share with us some of your most memorable shots in your previous rail travel trips in Japan on Instagram. Simply tag us at #jrstoriesrailtravel on your photos & videos on Instagram to be featured in this episode 

 

JR Stories: Rail Travel in Japan
Organised by JAPAN RAIL CAFE
Date: 22 November 2020
Time: 7-8pm
RSVP: https://fb.me/e/3pp8MG27Q
Join us LIVE on The Japan Rail Fair or Facebook

 

This article is written in collaboration with nomono and JW360º.

 

Header image credit: JR Times / Sue

 

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