Umami by Laia Jufresa: A Book, a Taste, a Bowl of Soup
Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.
Umami is the title of this uncompromising novel by Laia Jufresa, set in New Mexico and translated into English with remarkable skill by Sophie Hughes. Umami is also the title of a book within the book, ‘an anthropological essay on the relationship between the fifth sense and pre-Hispanic food,’ written by Dr. Alfonso Semetiel (Alf), ‘the man who introduced umami into the national gastronomic dialog.’
Alf has spent an academic lifetime studying, and trying to explain, the meaning of umami.
The easiest way to understand it is this: think about pasta. Imagine a portion of spaghetti. It’s nothing; doesn’t taste of anything. Carbohydrates, plain and simple. But, if you add umami; if you throw in a bit of parmesan or tomato or eggplant, then bingo! You’ve got yourself a meal!
To Alf, and perhaps to us all, umami signifies the very best, the meatiest, the most satisfying of what life has to offer. So obsessed is he that, when re-building his home after the crushing earthquake of 1985, he built not one, but five new homes, naming them in honour of the five tastes recognizable to the human tongue.
Taking Umami House as his own, Alf now spends his days studying, and trying to explain, the meaning of his dead wife.
Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your tastebuds without you being able to quite put your finger on it. Complex and at the same time clean and round, just like Noelia: as distinguishable as she was unpredictable.
The houses named Sweet and Salty are occupied by the Perez-Walker family of ‘almost six’ people, all grieving the loss of their youngest member.
Luz was almost six when she drowned. That’s what she’d say from the day she turned five: “I’m almost six.” Mom hasn’t gone back to the lake since, but she insists on sending us. To her mind, if you fall off the horse you have to get right back on again, or if not you, at least your kids.
To escape the dreaded annual summer trip to ‘the epicentre of the tragedy to wallow in seaweed and memories,’ Ana Perez proposes to build a milpa, a traditional Mexican kitchen garden. With Alf’s expert advice, she will grow the three sisters, ‘first the corn, then the beans, and after that the squash’ and perhaps bring new life to her corner of the world.
Sour House is home to Pina, Ana’s best friend. An anorexic young woman, debilitated by the bad taste an abusive father has left in her mouth, completes the set at Bitter House.
These people, their stories and diverse voices, are combined with a deft hand by Jufresa into a book with the depth and complexity of good gravy.
The story, recounted in reverse by five distinct voices, tells how a life, a wife, a mother and a daughter are lost and, ever so slowly, reclaimed. It is an unusual book, often surprising, occasionally shocking, and simmering with new ideas that stretch your mind like a new flavour sensation.
Like the most innovative of chefs, Jufresa demonstrates an original, alternative way of looking at familiar things. We compare people to foods all the time: you’re a peach, he’s a nut, she’s a few beans short of a chilli. We characterise people by flavour and understand well what we mean by bitter, sweet or sour personalities. But what sort of person might be called umami? How well does any of us know which tastes we embody? And, do we seek relationships with people of similar or complementary taste profiles?
Umami is a quirky read but the voices ring true. They sound like real, confused, grief-stricken people. The tone is gentle with hint of barely subdued hysteria. This book hurts. It will be best enjoyed by those with a taste for devastation.
Jufresa has created a microcosm, weird as Wonkaland, satisfying to mind and soul but likely to stimulate your corporeal appetite.
Assuage your hunger with a steaming bowl of umami-packed Aztec Soup.
This recipe has a long list of ingredients but they are simple ingredients and none, except perhaps the chicken, is essential. Use what you have and what you like. I chose corn, beans and squash, the three sisters, in honour of Ana’s magical milpa.
Food is a patriot. Under no circumstances will it be replicated outside of its mother country.
Google tells me that Cork is 5,193 miles from Mexico City and this may be a million miles from an authentic Aztec soup but it is a good soup, delicious and deeply satisfying.
For the Stock:
1 small free-range chicken
2 stalks of celery, including ends and leaves, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot, not peeled, roughly chopped
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp chilli flakes
Bouquet garni of bay, sage, rosemary and thyme.
For the Sofrito:
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 finely sliced red onions
2 finely sliced stalks of celery
1 small butternut squash, cut into bite-sized cubes
3 crushed cloves of garlic
1 tsp salt
generous grind of black pepper
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp smoked paprika
To complete the soup:
2 cups of fresh or frozen sweetcorn
1 can of black-eyed beans
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Grated hard cheese
Chilli paste or chopped fresh chilli
First, make the stock.
Portion the chicken into segments and place in a large saucepan. Add all the other stock ingredients. Cover everything with cold water and then bring it to the boil. It is important to begin with cold water as it is in the heating up that most of the flavour and goodness is drawn out from the bones and vegetables. Simmer for 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the sofrito which is simply a vegetable base for soup.
Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil around the base of a large saucepan. Add all the sofrito ingredients. Cover with a close-fitting lid and allow to sweat, over a low heat, for fifteen minutes. The onions should be sweet and translucent, the squash almost cooked.
By now, the chicken should be cooked. Remove all the chicken meat from the bones and add it to the sofrito. Strain the stock through a sieve and add it to the soup.
Add the remaining ingredients to complete the soup. Worcestershire sauce, while not a traditional ingredient in Aztec soup, is mentioned by Alf as a source of umami and it works a treat here.
Bring the soup back to the boil and simmer for a further five minutes.
Ladle the soup into deep bowls, spritz with fresh lime juice and finish with a garnish of grated cheese and chilli.
Bingo! You've got yourself a meal!