The State of the Sauce
Maya Hey, research intern at Nordic Food Lab
Sauce. Saucy. Saucier. They’re part of a kitchen brigade. Entire cuisines are built around them. And, they help us define dishes by their mere presence (think Eggs Benedict or Pasta Carbonara). Sauces make the gastronomic world go round despite never being the star of the show.
One need not look further than “the art of plating” in social media outlets to see that sauces are elaborately siphoned, smeared, splattered, and perfected ad infinitum while we double-tap at its visual appeal. But, it also begs the question: are sauces just for show nowadays? In an age of simple, focused dishes, have sauces become extraneous or, worse, obsolete?
The current state of the sauce may not be dead per se—at least, not in the same way that David Chang famously called out the ramen scene last year—but, sauces seem to be relegated to a lesser priority if not for the curiosity and sticktuitiveness of late-night test kitchens and DIY homecooks who march to the tune of deliciousness.
At the Nordic Food Lab, koji is an old friend that we’ve revisited and we’re looking into exploring its umami potential beyond miso and shoyu. We already know that skillfully enlisting the help of microbes can help transform humble ingredients into deliciously fermented sauces over months and years. But, what about umami that’s relatively instant? Or, one that doesn’t rely on animal bones or proteins for depth of flavor?
At a time when umami can be easily isolated, extracted, synthesized, replicated, and sprinkled at will, going through the trouble of crafting sauces is all the more important. In our current adventures down the umami path, we’re reminded that koji can mimic the meaty flavors of sauces sans meat. Koji as a fermentation process yields time-vested flavors of richness and complexity; koji as a food product delivers that same complexity and umami without the maturation time.
Lost in Translation
Deliciousness is a term that’s been thrown around a lot in academic research and just as well in popular food culture. We –the Nordic Food Lab— have been deploying phrases like “the pursuit of deliciousness” or “exploring deliciousness” in manifestos and mission statements since our inception. And we will continue to, no doubt.
What exactly do we mean by deliciousness anyway?
Take umami, the linguistic equivalent of deliciousness. Umami (旨味) is comprised of two kanji characters: the first denoting principle (旨) and the second meaning taste (味). Deliciousness = principles of taste.
When the fifth taste became part of the culinary lexicon—after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—the term “umami” was chosen over other descriptors like oishii (おいしい). Oishii translates more along the lines of “tasty” or “yummy” and is specific to culinary use.
Umai (うまい), the adjective form of umami, is a general descriptor for all things executed with skill. It can be used to reference someone who speaks a language fluently or play an instrument with proficiency; it is often synonymous with 上手, or an action performed well. What’s important here is that the term implies the person is executing a well-practiced skill. Compare that against the locus of action in the term oishii, which only describes an attribute of a food.
Umai refers to a skill-based practice situated in the cook instead of something inherent in the food. Then, perhaps the pursuit of deliciousness should really look at how we—as cooks—skillfully coax out the delicious flavors of food one (im)perfected plate at a time. I cannot take credit for thinking of roasted koji as an ingredient for there are others before me who deserve it. But, treating koji as more than just an enzymatic workhorse warrants the attention of mind and gut.
Back to sauces: A koji demi-glace
In the spirit of charming umami out of various food sources, below is a recipe that uses Nordic koji to make a meatless demi-glace. It combines our previous research on koji with inspiration by the brilliant minds at ChefSteps. The roasted notes really come through, so it gives depth to light dishes like steamed Spring vegetables or grain salads.
Making a Koji Demi-Glace
Depending on how much you choose to reduce your demi-glace, this recipe yields approximately 500mL sauce.
You will need:
800g assorted vegetables* and vegetable scraps
400g barley koji
*If you choose to use a higher concentration of alliums or root vegetables, your demi will taste sweeter. Conversely, if you choose to use more vegetables from the brassica family, your demi will have some subtle bitterness but will also have more savory notes in the final demi.
gastro tray or large baking tray
chinois or strainer
1. Slice the vegetables very thinly, including the peel and outer skins. Employing a mandolin may help expedite this process.
2. (optional) Lightly coat the vegetable slices with oil.
3. Roast the vegetables in a 140°C oven for 40 minutes, stirring once or twice to ensure even cooking.
4. Add the koji to the cooked vegetables and return the gastrotray to the oven. Roast for another 20 minutes at 140°C.
5. Add 2.5L water, return the gastrotray to the oven, and cook for another 40 minutes.
6. Strain out the liquid and reduce by half. Season with salt to taste.