Cherry tomatoes and powdered cheese in miso soup may take some by surprise, and all the more so if the process begins by cooking "shimeji" mushrooms in water instead of making soup stock with dried kelp.
"These ingredients happen to release the umami (savory) elements," says Sally Hiramatsu, the 28-year-old "science-based cooking expert," who has a talent for conveying the mechanisms of how tastiness comes about through cooking from a scientific perspective.
"Kombu," or kelp that is often used to make dashi stock in Japan, is a good source of glutamic acid responsible for the umami flavor. Tomatoes and powdered cheese are also rich in the acid.
Shimeji mushroom is rich in guanylic acid, another umami component. So the flavor is enhanced by combining the two. A sip of the soup certainly reveals a rich flavor similar to the taste of dashi stock.
Using broccoli and asparagus instead of tomato and cheese produces the same effect. "Your cooking repertoire will grow if you understand the scientific mechanisms," she says.
Hiramatsu loved science classes in her elementary school days. She would read about experiments designed for children and try them out at home. At university, she studied protein, and conducted research on how peanuts cause allergies.
Hiramatsu developed a love for cooking when she began living on her own in her freshman year and began to write blogs on cooking with enthusiasm in her senior year. To get a wide readership, she decided to incorporate her area of specialty. She added not only the knowledge she acquired at college but also on her own such as about the sugar content that keeps meat moist and the umami flavors contained in vegetables.
In the summer of that year, a graduate student who had read Hiramatsu’s blog encouraged her to enter a publication contest that turned outstanding projects into books. She put together a project proposal for a cookery book that incorporated scientific mechanisms and submitted it to the sixth "Shuppan Koshien" contest held in 2010. She won the grand prize from among 150 or so entries.
The feat determined her future path.
Born in 1989, Sally Hiramatsu grew up in Nagaizumi, Shizuoka Prefecture. She completed her master’s degree at the Graduate School of Agriculture of Kyoto University where she studied protein engineering. She has written books including "Omoshiroi! Ryori no Kagaku" (Such fun! The science of cooking) published by Kodansha at 1,200 yen ($10.6) plus tax.
4 cherry tomatoes
30 grams shimeji mushroom
300 cc water
2 tsp miso
Some powdered cheese
Some black pepper
Rinse tomatoes, remove calyx and cut in half. Finely slice onion. Remove base part from shimeji and break it apart.
Add water, onion and shimeji in pot and heat. When onion is cooked, add tomatoes and bring to a boil.
Dissolve miso in a ladle-full of water from pot.
When tomatoes have softened, lightly squash with ladle or chopsticks, add miso liquid and turn off heat.
Serve in bowl, sprinkle cheese and pepper on top.
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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column