Add some umami to your menu

June 28 2017

Sushi is available almost everywhere these days. It wasn't long ago that this specialty food item was only found in Japanese restaurants and sushi boat places, but now, it can be picked up pre-made from the supermarket, while convenience stores, fast food restaurants and even coffee shops sell the food item.

But while sushi continues to grow in popularity, many people remain unfamiliar with other elements of Japanese cuisine. Flavor & the Menu Magazine reports that elements of the country's food culture have moved faster through the trend cycle than the cuisine as a whole (a similar phenomenon has happened with Korean food) and, as a result, diners' understanding and awareness of the various flavours and food combinations is lacking.

That is changing, however, and people are becoming more aware of other distinct elements of Japanese cooking. For example, many chefs are beginning to experiment with furikake and togarashi - two unique seasonings that provide bursts of umami. 

What are furikake and togarashi?

These two seasonings are known for their umami taste. Furikake is typically made with a base of dried, ground fish and then combined with a variety of ingredients such as sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar, salt, MSG, bonito, shiso, powdered miso and dried vegetables.

Togarashi, also known as shichimi togarashi or just shichimi, contains several ingredients. These include two types of peppers, roasted orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ginger, and seaweed. Other ingredients may also be used, such as poppy seeds, yuzu peel, rapeseed and shiso, and the seasoning's purpose is to create a complex heat that elevates a dish's flavour profile.

Currently, togarashi seems to be more popular than furikake. According to Datassential's MenuTrends database, penetration levels of togarashi are around three-times greater than that of furikake. The overall penetration levels of both of these ingredients are still small, however. Togarashi is used by 1.5 per cent of restaurants, while furikake is used by around 0.5 per cent. They are mainly used in the fine-dining segment and have seen consistent and significant growth in the past few years.

Where to add umami?

If you're thinking about incorporating the umami flavours of furikake and togarashi to your menu, there are many options to consider.

Traditionally, furikake is used as a seasoning on rice, vegetable and fish dishes. Currently, most restaurants using it continue to keep to these uses. However, some operators are beginning to experiment, sprinkling it on top of fries or mixing it into burgers. Flavor & the Menu also suggests that other potential uses for the seasoning include pasta, eggs, bagels, pizza, popcorn and other snacks. 

Togarashi is traditionally used on foods like tempura, noodles and yakitori, but several operators are using it in various other dishes including appetizers, salads and entrees. Like furikake, it's great on fries and burgers, and at ACE in Denver, it's being used on crispy Brussels sprouts. 

Benjy's in Houston includes togarashi on its Korean fried chicken wings, while at Common Grill in Chelsea, Michigan, it's mixed into the restaurant's aioli. Other uses could include fish dishes, ribs, avocado toast, guacamole and calamari.

Thanks to togarashi's spicy flavour and the preference among many diners for adding extra heat, it's likely that this seasoning will continue to grow in popularity.

Other uses

It's not just traditionally savoury dishes where furikake and togarashi are being used, and growth in these other areas can be attributed at least in some part to the internet and social media. Recipes online can easily be found for food like cheesecake, chocolate truffles, caramel and ice cream, all using these umami spices.

Beverages are also a great place to try adding these spices, especially with the current trend for cocktails with a culinary twist. The spices could be used to cover the rim of a glass, sprinkled over the top as a garnish, or infused into a spirit. For example, the Seven Spice Sour at Ma Peche in New York uses a togarashi-infused sake.

Whichever way you decide to use the umami flavours of furikake and togarashi - whether it's within Asian applications or in other dishes - it's likely the results will be very appealing to diners seeking a new flavour experience.