KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 30 — They say you need to spice up your life when things get tedious. Yet so many of us can’t handle fiery foods, no?
A smidgen of sambal would make one friend begin to perspire; imagine if he had to polish off an entire bowl of red hot Korean noodles?
Perhaps what our taste buds require isn’t flames but more flavour. And I think of what we so often associate with umami — that fifth element, that once missing taste that the Japanese pinned down scientifically.
The man in question was Kikunae Ikeda, a professor of the Tokyo Imperial University. In 1908, Prof. Ikeda identified glutamate as the source of savouriness of a kombu dashi broth.
That ineffable palatability was a clearly different taste than what was already known previously: salty and sweet, sour and bitter. Prof Ikeda called this discovery — this new taste — umami.
We now know that many different foods lend a hearty dose of umami to dishes: from dried bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms to Parmesan cheese and even Chinese cabbage. They all add that something extra.
Well, we all could do with a little something extra these days to perk up our taste buds as well as our spirits.
When I think of umami, I imagine adding a spoonful of miso paste to a clear soup as a finishing touch. I relish opening a small packet of natto and adding these cold fermented soybeans to a bowl of hot steamed rice, followed by the requisite sachets of tare sauce and karashi mustard.
Yes, we definitely can do with more umami in our lives; a little bit more excitement wouldn’t hurt. And sometimes this can be as easy as raiding your pantry.
Let’s see: I have plenty of eggs left. Some Thai fish sauce would raise the flavour stakes when added to these eggs, beaten into a frothy slurry and fried in hot oil.
Two punnets of cherry tomatoes, still good but past their prime. Fresh but not the freshest. No matter. Besides being rich in beneficial lycopene, tomatoes taste amazing when their juices are reduced with cooking.
Imagine these cherry tomatoes as concentrated umami reservoirs, ready to explode in our mouths. These will go into a baking tray to roast in the oven, alongside plenty of garlic and freshly ground black pepper, some good extra virgin olive oil and as much salt as they need.
We need something as a base, such as rice or pasta or bread. In honour of the Japanese inspiration, how about some shirataki noodles?
Made from konjac yam, these translucent and gelatinous noodles are famed as zero calorie or low calorie fare. This is because glucomannan, a type of soluble fibre they contain, may help you slow down digestion and increase satiety.
Truth be told, I just want to make use of my last packet of shirataki noodles; it has been sitting in my fridge for goodness since when. As they have no real taste of their own, they are a perfect landscape to add pops of colour and flavour.
What else? Some sauce to ensure these noodles are slick with seasoned oil and don’t stick in tangled clumps. Sesame oil. Coconut oil. Soy sauce. Ground white pepper. A few drops of Shaoxing wine.
Gussy up these plain noodles and you will have the most oishii and slurp-worthy strands in town bar none. All that without leaving the comforts of your own abode. We can #StayAtHome and conjure the umami-est of meals.
This is a simple enough dish to make but following a certain order will make things easier.
First, begin with the ingredient that requires the longest cooking time, which in this case is the roasted cherry tomatoes. They will keep warm in the oven anyway if they happen to be ready before you are done with the rest.
One tip is to make lots of roasted cherry tomatoes and freeze for future use; no thawing required as you can just throw them into any hot dish such as a stew or sauce for a pasta.
The second item to get out of the way is the omelette which tastes good even at room temperature or cold. To ensure this (Asian rather than French) omelette cooks faster, cover the pan with a lid so that the steam will cook the top part of the beaten eggs at the same time as the bottom.
Lastly you can prepare the shirataki noodles, which may seem as though they require more work but it’s just a few steps.
As they typically come packaged in liquid, you would want to rinse and drain them first. Some parboiling may also help if you find the residual odour from the packing liquid too strong.
Next, to give the shirataki noodles a more bouncy texture, some pan-frying on a dry pan without any water or oil will help eliminate excess moisture. And then they are ready to absorb all the flavours of the sauce you’ve made!
2 punnets cherry tomatoes (about 500-600g), halved
6-8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 packet shirataki noodles (about 200g)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
Ground white pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Prepare a large baking dish by covering it with aluminium foil. Mix the cherry tomatoes and garlic in a large bowl with the extra-virgin olive oil, black pepper and salt until they are all well coated.
Transfer the cherry tomatoes and garlic to the baking tray and place in the preheated oven. Roast for about 20 minutes until the cherry tomatoes begin to wilt and shrink in size. The skins of some may also split, releasing juices.
Crack the eggs into a bowl. Add the fish sauce and beat with a fork until well combined and frothy. Pan fry in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Cover the pan with its lid so that the steam helps cook the top portion.
Remove from the pan once cooked and let it cool on a chopping board or wire rack. Slice into wedges (or ribbon strips, if preferred) once cool. Set aside.
Drain the packet of shirataki noodles of its packing liquid. Using a large sieve, continue rinsing the noodles under running water until there is no residue of the packing liquid.
To remove any remaining odour, you may choose to parboil the noodles: Prepare a pot of boiling water and cook the noodles in it for about 3 minutes before draining and drying on paper towels.
Finally pan-fry the dried noodles in a dry non-stick pan for about 5-8 minutes over a medium heat. Toss the noodles regularly using chopsticks or a pair of heat-proof tongs to prevent them from clumping together.
Once most of the moisture has been cooked away, transfer the noodles to a large serving bowl filled with the sauce ingredients (sesame oil, coconut oil, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and ground white pepper). Mix well.
Add as much of the roasted cherry tomatoes and garlic as you like and toss to mix again. Top with the wedges of omelette and serve immediately.
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