'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 5 November 2012

Steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms 北菇蒸雞

The fifth element

If you ask people how many flavours there are in food, they would usually come up with four: sweet, sour, bitter and salty (spiciness is actually a pain, believe it or not!). In the early 20th century, a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda (池田菊苗) claimed that there's actually a fifth element in food: the umami flavour (うま味/鮮味). It's the deeply savoury, mouth-watering flavour that we associate with great savoury dishes. In a sense, is the flavour of flavour. It's distinct from plain saltiness, but a long-lasting 'flavourfulness' that literally make us salivate. By the way, research has shown that breast milk is the first taste of umami that humans encounter and is extremely rich in glutamates.

Interestingly, umami doesn't taste of anything on its own, but magnifies other savoury flavours and give a synergistic effect. Humans implicitly recognised this long ago and different cultures across the globe must have have been exploiting food rich in umami flavours since time immemorial. Foods rich in umami include fish, shellfish, cured meat (think bacon!) and certain vegetables (tomatoes and leek?). Fermented food, in particular, has long been used to give 'body' to savoury dishes. In East-Asian cooking soya sauce and fish sauce (nuoc nam) are absolutely indispensable, and they contribute depth of flavour to a dish in a way that salt cannot. Not to mention other Asian specialities like Korean kimchi, Japanese miso, etc!

Compared to Asian cooking, it seems that western cooking employs less fermented stuff for seasoning. Sure, there's cheese, wine, bacon and all that, but they're not used as basic seasonings. Interestingly, people in ancient Greece and Rome did use a kind of fermented fish sauce (garum) in their cooking. For reasons unknown to me, its use gradually died out in western cooking. I think it's for this reason - the lack of a basic seasoning that's rich in umami - that classical French cuisine relies heavily on reduction for distilling flavours. Despite its great sophistication, it is extremely time-consuming too.

Don't be fooled by the smiley face.
In scientific terms, the source for umami flavour is is L-glutamate, a word that might sound familiar to you even if you're not a science major. Think monosodium glutamate, aka MSG (味精). What Kikunae Ikeda came to realise was that glutamate was responsible for the deep flavour of dashi, the Japanese equivalent of stock (fond in French). The ingredient in dashi that contributes this glutamate is the kombu seaweed (昆布). Unfortunately for humanity, Ikeda extracted glutamate in his lab and created a free-flowing white substance called monosodium glutamate. The first commercial production of monosodium glutamate was carried out by the Suzuki brothers in 1909 who marketed it as as Aji-no-moto (味の素), meaning 'essence of taste' in Japanese. I believe from the bottom of my heart that this invention was catastrophic for the future of Asian gastronomy.

Since MSG was a cheap and instant way of making food taste better, the majority of chefs (especially in China) no longer cared about making stock from scratch, the quality of their ingredients and what food actually tastes like. Worse still, over time one's taste buds get addicted to the instant but shallow flavour enhancement of MSG that one loses the ability to detect and appreciate pure, unadulterated flavours. You may think that I'm losing my mind, but I honestly think that it's a grave situation - almost the entire China cooks with MSG. No wonder Chinese cooking is no longer at the top of the culinary world - and meanwhile look at how countries like Spain and Denmark are having a food renaissance! The first step to reviving the glory of Chinese cooking surely lies in legally banning the use of MSG, full stop. According to a New York Times article, the use of MSG is found throughout the world: 'It is the taste of Marmite in the United Kingdom, of Golden Mountain sauce in Thailand, of Goya Sazón on the Latin islands of the Caribbean, of Salsa Lizano in Costa Rica and of Kewpie mayonnaise in Japan.'

Also, don't forget the MSG symptom complex, sometimes affectionately known as the 'Chinese restaurant symtom'.  Apparently in extreme cases people have died due to excessive MSG in restaurant food. Luckily I'm not that sensitive to MSG, but after eating MSG-ridden restaurant food I do get unbelievably thirsty with a funny (unpleasant, of course) sensation on my tongue, and even headaches. The MSG symptom complex is apparently not scientifically proven, but I would rather not have the unpleasant 'hangover' and avoid MSG as best as I can. For its detrimental effect on the sensitivity of our taste buds alone, we ought to be much more careful with MSG than we are.

So much better, therefore, to cook with ingredients that are naturally beaming with glutamate. Apart from the ingredients that I mentioned above, mushrooms have some of the richest glutamate profiles. It's no surprise, therefore, that food cooked with mushrooms taste more savoury and 'meaty' - they literally enhance the flavour of the dish. It's perhaps justified that wild mushrooms are so hediously expensive! This past week has been insanely busy for me and I hardly had anytime to cook. So on the day when I actually could cook, I decided to make steamed chicken with dried shiitake mushrooms.The pairing of dried shiitake mushroom and chicken is a classic Chinese one. Even though the chicken and mushrooms are just steamed together, the umami-rich mushroom juices moisten and flavour the chicken during the steaming, and the chicken emerges much more flavourful than you would have expected.

Normally I'm a big advocate of eating chicken on the bone with the skin on - they give so much flavour and help keep the meat tender - but there are times when you just want minimum work and chopping bones with your cleaver is the last thing you would want to do after a long day of work. Thankfully, I had some boneless chicken thighs sitting in my freezer, so before I left for school in the morning I defrosted them and soaked some shiitake mushrooms so that there wouldn't be much work before dinner.

Steamed chicken with shiitake mushrooms 北菇蒸雞

1. When buying shiitake mushrooms, give them a good sniff to make sure that they have a nice aroma - they're actually known as 'fragrant mushrooms' (香菇) in mainland China. Next, check that the 'crack' patterns on the top are clearly visible. The colour shouldn't be too dark, either.

2. I like to cook the reconstituted mushrooms with the soaking liquid along with a little flavourings to 'season' the mushrooms. If you don't mind unseasoned mushrooms, you can skip this step altogether.

3. The ginger is important in this dish - it has an inconspicuous presence but adds a gentle warmth to the dish. Don't add too much though - it shouldn't be an overkill.

4. Last thing: instead of steaming the dish, you can also cook it with your rice! Simply add everything in one layer on the rice when you see that the rice is no longer super-watery and the grains have absorbed like 3/4 of the water. Give it a good 15-minutes wait after the rice cooker turns to 'cooked' mode.

650g (1 1/2 pounds) chicken, on or off the bone, chopped into chewable sizes
6-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
Two thin slices of ginger, cut into thin slivers

1 tbsp light soya sauce
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 heaped tsp sugar
2 tsp cornflour
Pinch of white pepper
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp sesame oil

Splash of Shaoxing rice wine
2 tsp oyster sauce or 醬油膏
1 tsp light soya sauce
1 1/2 tsp sugar

1. Rinse the dried mushrooms under the tap briefly, and soak them in a bowl with water to cover comfortably, stems down, for at least 4 hours.

Among these only the one in the top right corner was of acceptable quality...

2. When the mushrooms are reconstituted, remove them from the soaking liquid and cut the stems off with scissors. I like to cut them in halves too but you don't have to. Squeeze the mushrooms hard with your fist so that you get rid of most of the moisture. If you're concerned with trapped grits, you can put them in a colander, sprinkle with one tablespoon flour, and rub the flour all over the mushrooms. Wash under the tap again - any dirty grits will be removed along with the flour. Drain the soaking liquid through a fine sieve too to remove any grits.

3. Put the chicken pieces in a large bowl and  add all the marinade except the oils. Stir in one direction to mix well.

4. Now add the oils and stir again. The chicken would now look much shinier. Place them in a deep-ish dish.

5. Now for the optional step of pre-cooking the mushrooms - they will have a more chewy texture and better flavour after this treatment, but you don't have to do it especially if you are pressed for time. Place a saucepan on medium-high heat, and when its nicely hot and smoky, add about 2 tsp of oil - mushrooms need oil for juiciness. (You can also cut out some fat from the chicken pieces and use that instead - so much better.) Throw the mushrooms in and stir through quickly. Add a splash of Shaoxing rice wine to the pan to add fragrance.

6. Add all the (drained) soaking liquid along with the flavourings. Cook on medium heat until all the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms have re-absorbed all the goodness. Be careful, don't burn it!

7. Place the mushrooms on top of the chicken. Sprinkle the ginger slivers onto the dish.

8. Steam on high heat for 15 minutes or until the chicken pieces are just cooked.


  1. Interesting what you said regarding MSG. I am one of those people that I thought MSG didn't bother me. Well maybe the headaches I have been having are caused by MSG. And never even slightly thought they could be related to what I am eating, have been blaming on sleep. Which they could be too.
    Great post, love the look of those mushrooms.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Yup I do feel very unpleasant after eating MSG-ridden Asian food. I find that herbal tea - especially chrysanthemum (it's Chinese though) - helps relieving minor headaches. But yea, I'm pretty sure MSG causes headache in some people, although the majority of Asia must have learnt to be immune to it by now!