Thursday, October 25, 2012

Umami Flood Apocalypse

Mushroom Dumpling Island

Humans have fives senses – taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell. 

The question “Which one of your senses are you willing to give up?” is often asked. For most, it’s just a hypothetical, but for some it’s a reality of life. Many people are blind or deaf. As someone who is lucky enough to have all five senses fully functioning, I cannot imagine what life would be without one of them. 

In an apocalypse, which sense would be the most integral to our survival?

There are only a few things that humans need in order to survive – shelter, water and food.

How long you can survive depends on a number of factors but here is a simple “Rule of 3” as a guide - 

1. Humans cannot survive more than 3 hours exposed to extremely high or low temperatures.
2. Humans cannot survive more than 3 days without water.
3. Humans cannot survive more than 3 weeks without food.

We will probably seek shelter underground in bunkers and find ways to filter our water or maybe end up drinking our own urine. But what about food? How will we know what to eat and what not to eat?

What if you were left with the choice of only having one sense to maintain survival in an apocalypse?

Which sense would you choose?


Having taste is a matter of survival.

Really? You might be thinking – what about the ability to hear or see? It is easy to take the sense of taste for granted up against all the other senses we have but have you thought about what the sense of taste provides us?

The sense of taste is crucial because it drives us to select foods that we need for survival.

The consumption of food does not happen in isolation though, as the sense of taste functions in coordination with the sense of smell, where ‘taste’ allows us to detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami; and ‘smell’ allows us to take in the aroma of food and indicate its flavour. But taste is the building block. For example, if you have a vanilla milkshake you would be able to smell the vanilla flavour, but if you had no taste you would not be able to taste its sweetness and all it would be is a thick creamy texture in your mouth. It might smell good but it would taste like nothing. Without your sense of smell, you would lose a lot of flavour but you would still be able to perceive the basic tastes.

A morsel of umami – seared scallop on a bed of caramelized star anise onions with bacon crumble on top and alfalfa

The five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) allow us to distinguish between safe and harmful food, and directs us towards the types of foods that we need to eat to survive. We find bitter and sour foods unpleasant which indicates that food may not be safe to eat. A sour taste signals over-ripe fruit, rotten meat and other spoiled foods which can make us ill. A bitter taste is a warning of toxicity and helps us to avoid digesting poisonous substances. Salty and sweet foods are pleasant and safe to eat. A sweet taste signals the presence of calorie rich carbohydrates which are an essential energy source. It would be important to be able to detect and consume high-caloric foods as in an apocalypse we won’t know when our next meal will be. Saltiness indicates the presence of sodium which is a necessary mineral for survival as its important to vital processes within the body, such as transmitting nerve signals, helping muscles contract and regulating blood volume. I guess this explains why we are so drawn to the taste of salty and sugary foods. The umami taste gives us sustenance as it is found in amino acid rich foods which have a lot of protein. The presence of umami is also a sign of deliciousness which encourages the intake of protein. Protein is a nutrient needed by the human body for growth and maintenance, it is used to form blood cells, build muscles and organs, and transport molecules, antibodies and enzymes. 

As you can see, all our basic tastes have a built-in survival reflex, providing valuable information about the nature and quality of the food that we eat. Through our sense of taste we reject foods that could be harmful and enjoy eating foods that provide us with energy and nutrients. 

But more importantly, taste is pleasurable sensation. The enjoyment that comes with consuming food is not just about filling up your stomach so that you are no longer hungry, but the pleasure that you gain from the taste of it. I’m sure that everyone would have experienced at some point in their life, temporarily loosing their sense of taste like when you are sick or I remember a time when after a breakup, I was in such a sad and depressed state that everything I ate tasted like cardboard. My state of mind rendered everything tasteless, I loss my appetite, I didn't feel like eating anything. As bad as living in the apocalypse will be, I don’t want to have to live it feeling like I’m suffering from depression every day because I can’t taste anything that I eat! I would feel disconnected from my food and I would loose my interest in eating, and probably starve to death. Taste is significant to the health and quality of our lives. If I lost my sense of taste living in an apocalypse, it would remove not only a means of survival but also a sense of joy in my life, so would it even be worth living at all? 

The idea for my next apocalypse inspired dish is a tribute to my favourite taste – umami, where I try to incorporate as many different umami rich foods into a dish as possible because in my opinion it’s the most important taste for our survival. Dishes containing umami also taste better and are satisfying to eat as it provides a richer and more rounded taste, and enhances the flavour of other the foods it’s cooked with. This dish is a delicious apocalypse!

The umami taste was first detected in 1907 by a Japanese chemistry professor named Kikunae Ikeda in a bowl of dashi soup. Dashi is one of the purest expressions of umami containing kelp and bonito flakes, so I wanted to make dashi but not just the standard dashi. I made bacon dashi using a recipe from the Momofuku cookbook. Cured pork products like bacon and ham are also rich in umami. 

As dashi was going to be central to my dish, the first apocalyptic scenario that came to my head was floodwaters. In myths and theology, floods often symbolize destruction that ends civilization, the cleansing of humanity and the beginning of a new period, a rebirth.

The 21st of December 2012 marks the end of the Mayan calendar and some believe that it may mark the end of civilization. A galactic alignment is predicted to occur where the Sun will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time in about 26,000 years which has the potential to create a shift in the Earth's poles and cause a series of disastrous environmental events. Mayan prophecies do allude to flooding and the potential for a flood apocalypse is a real concern to some, especially in the Netherlands where much of the country is below sea level and there have been reports that many have been stocking up on emergency supplies including life rafts. The idea of a flood apocalypse was the subject of the 2009 apocalyptic film 2012 which references the Mayan predictions and pushes the idea that the world will be destroyed by a catastrophic flood in 2012.

So here I present to you my third apocalypse inspired dish - it is an “Umami Flood Apocalypse” 

Before Floods
After Flooding
Flood Destruction
Umami Flood Apocalypse!

My Umami Arsenal 

•    bacon dashi (umami double trouble with bacon and kombu)
•    shiitake mushrooms and tofu pot sticker dumplings (umami quadruple hit with shiitake, soy sauce, fish sauce and oyster sauce)
•    star anise caramelized onions (the star anise intensifies meaty/savoury notes of a dish to complement other umami elements)
•    bacon crumble (more bacon)
•    seared scallops (bivalves are rich sources of natural glutamate)
•    asparagus (asparagus is an umami intensifier)
•    Hon-shimeji mushrooms (more mushrooms)


Mushroom and Tofu Pot Sticker Dumplings 

(An original recipe by Blue Apocalypse)


•    packet of dumpling wrappers (filling mixture makes around 25)
•    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
•    500g of firm tofu
•    ½ cup (5-6) shittake mushrooms, rehydrated and finely diced
•    2/3 cup (70g) of Chinese flat leaf garlic chives, roughly chopped into 1cm lengths
•    1 teaspoon ginger, minced (use microfilm/grater)
•    2 cloves garlic, minced (use garlic crusher)
•    ½ tablespoon light soy sauce
•    ½ tablespoon fish sauce
•    1 tablespoon oyster sauce
•    salt and pepper to taste
•    ¼ teaspoon of sesame oil
•    1 egg, lightly beaten
•    1 ½ teaspoon cornflour mixed with a little water

Chinese Garlic Chives
Remove the excess water from the tofu by putting between paper towels and weighing down with a heavy plate for about an hour. Then crumble the tofu.

Heat wok or pan with oil and fry the minced garlic and ginger for 30 seconds, then add in diced shiitake mushrooms and fry for a few minutes until the mushrooms brown a little. Add crumbled tofu, chopped garlic chives and seasonings – soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper to taste. Stir fry to combine and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool. Then add in egg and cornflour, and mix through.

Mushroom and Tofu Dumpling Filling
Place about 1 tablespoon of the mushroom and tofu filling mixture on a dumpling wrapper and moisten the edges with water. Fold over in half and make pleats to seal. 

To cook the dumplings, heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan to medium high. Add dumplings so that they sit flat in a single layer. Cook for ~2 minutes or until the bottoms are browned and crisp. Add ½ cup water into the pan and cover, lower the heat to medium-low and let the dumplings simmer for 3-4 minutes or until the water has evaporated. Uncover the dumplings and if necessary cook for another 1-2 minutes.

Bacon Dashi 

(Adapted from Momofuku cookbook)

•    two 15x8cm pieces of kombu
•    2 litres of water
•    225g smoky bacon
Plus I added in soy sauce for colour

Using scissors, make a few snips into the kombu to help release the flavours. Place water and kombu in a pot and soak for at least 30 minutes (the kombu will soften and expand).
Place the pan over medium heat and bring to the boil. Just before it reaches boiling point, turn off the heat and let steep for 10 minutes.
Remove the kombu from the pot and add the bacon. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the bacon and chill the dashi until the fat separates and hardens. Remove and discard the fat.
Reheat the dashi before using. Add some soy sauce to taste for colour.

Caramelised Onion with Star Anise


•    2 tablespoons olive oil
•    3 brown onions, thinly sliced
•    1 star anise
•    2 tablespoons brown sugar

Heat oil in frying pan and add sliced onion and star anise. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, when it starts to brown, add in the sugar and continue cooking for about an hour on a low heat, stirring occasionally until the onions are soft and caramelized. 

Bacon Crumble
Finely dice bacon and fry in a pan until crisp and brown.

Asparagus, Hon-shimeji mushrooms
Lightly blanched for 30 seconds in simmering bacon dashi and then remove.

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  1. Words cannot describe how awesome this is. Bravo! (Ps I need to make those dumplings ASAP!)

  2. What a creative idea! And yes I definitely don't like bitter foods although my naturopath father in law says that some are good for you (although I'm sure nowadays, the poisonous stuff isn't sold as food :)).

  3. Thanks Lorraine :) I think bitter would be my least favourite taste. There are some common bitter foods that people consume all the time like coffee/cocoa, these foods have evolved overtime to become palatable.

  4. This is amazing! Drooling while reading your post!

    1. Thanks for your comment Christian :) Glad you liked it!