Umami gives identity and intricacy to mother’s milk, a bowl of ramen, a writer poised between Japan and America.
Masami Teraoka, McDonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan, Geisha and Tattooed Woman, 1975. Watercolor on paper. 14.25 x 21.5 in. © Masami Teraoka.
“Be always beginning,” Rilke wrote. You begin again because you have no choice. When I was six, my Japanese mother took me to her hometown to live with my grandparents. In Morioka, a northern capital city, I attended the neighborhood kindergarten. My memories of those days are uniformly positive: hunting cicadas in the backyard with a store-bought child’s-net-and-terrarium set (cicada-catching is standard summer fare for Japanese kids); watching Ultraman monster shows, animation, and sumo wrestling on TV, seated beside my grandfather, both of us barefoot on the ribbed tatami mats; and bathing nightly in my grandparents’ stainless-steel tub, encased in dark wood-paneled walls.
But my mother tells me I was miserable, especially at school. I cried so hard and often that the principal called home in the middle of the day and asked her to please pick me up. I struggled with the language, the differences in cultural assumptions and attitudes, my alien looks and their alien food. I learned Japanese songs and chants and games that I can recite and play to this day, but I could not learn how to be Japanese.
Instead, I learned how to navigate the margins. It is wise, for example, to shut up if you don’t know the local language. Ten months later we returned to America, and my parents moved us nine times before I entered high school. Introduced to classes, usually mid-year, escorted by a teacher with a hand at my shoulder, I learned to say only what was necessary, to answer and ideally stanch further inquiry. To eye others when they weren’t looking, to see what they were looking at. To gauge reputations before seeking friendships, and to measure how each teacher was being assessed by the class. Was this one cool, respected, feared, or distrusted? How to behave amid this one’s approbation or that one’s dismissal?
The concept of umami, the so-called fifth taste, after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, still feels, at least on paper, like a bit of pseudo-scientific nihonjinron—the postwar academic fetishization of Japan’s uniqueness and need to be misunderstood. That said, there is a science around it. Umami is ascribed to the combination of glutamate with flavors found innately in natural foods, particularly fish and meats. Its English definition, “a pleasant savory taste,” does not capture its character, which is difficult to pin down. It is long-lasting, it coats the tongue and the palate, leaving a mark in the mouth and on the senses. It gives a thing its identity, its substance, its body, its backbone.
I didn’t have much choice, but I could choose to embrace being an unknown quantity, rather than running from or struggling to obscure my differences. It was important to stand out without sticking out. To hide the fact that I played soccer, for instance, and then get myself elected captain and MVP; to skate alone daily till dusk on a local pond so I could be a surprise center on the hockey team the following year; to practice drumming after school until dinner in the privacy of my room so I could emerge in a band at the high school dance.
When the phone rang late at night, it was Japan calling, and my mother turned into another self, her shoulders stiffening.
In America, I had no idea what to make of my Japanese-ness. I didn’t find it useful or revealing, and there seemed to be no glamor or romance in it. Most of my friends and classmates reacted numbly if I divulged my Japanese middle name or brought up my heritage. On one occasion, my mother, who rarely came to athletic events, showed up at a hockey game. “Holy shit,” one of my teammates said, leaning forward and squinting down the bench at me. “That’s your mom?” He nodded toward my parents in the bleachers. “I didn’t know your mom was a Chink. Woah.” His epithet was voiced with such blank innocence and surprise that it would have taken too much effort to correct him.
My mother gave up her Japanese passport and became an American citizen just before she married my father in 1967. For most of my childhood she was determined to speak and live like an American, to attain a cultural and linguistic fluency that was hard-won. There were traditional Japanese dolls in the house, framed strips of calligraphy on the walls, and piles of Japanese fashion magazines on the coffee table that my mother continues to receive through subscription. But despite these my mother tried hard to assimilate. We spoke English at home. We had Japanese food once in a while, but it was usually tailored to my father’s then quite American palate—sukiyaki with its rich beef broth, breaded chicken and pork katsu filets, and mild-tasting rice-based dishes. My grandparents, uncle, aunt, and cousins visited us in the United States, but familial communication was hobbled by language limitations on both sides; mostly everyone nodded and laughed excessively. When the phone rang late at night, it was Japan calling, and my mother turned into another self, speaking Japanese into the handset, her shoulders stiffening.
America was isolating. But there is no better salve for alienation than altitude. In my early teens, I came to love visiting Japan. Ascending to 30,000 feet in a plane, watching the New England and New York State landscapes shrink into swatches of green and crooked beige-blue below, I felt both liberated from, and superior to, my classmates, my teammates. Where were they now, now that they were faceless specks or less? I was rocketing to another planet, where their oxygen tanks would fail, their compasses demagnetize. My then rock n’ roll hero, The Who’s Pete Townshend, sang in “Quadrophenia”: “I have to work myself to death just to fit in.” Not up here. Not in Japan.
I went with my mother during summer vacations, and for years, I shared my experiences with precisely none of my American friends. Because of the limited amount of fuel passenger planes could hold and a lack of access to Soviet airspace, flying to Japan from the American East Coast took much longer back then. The trip would last at least two days and required an overnight in a Canadian or American hotel. In my teens, the chance to board a jet and stay in a hotel felt like a stab at sophistication, a world beyond that of my peers, whose acceptance I both craved and loathed. Traveling to Japan, I soared 500 miles per hour above and away from them, to a place where the language and food and manners and taxis and trains were completely different and in many ways superior—and back in the States they smoked weed by the beach or fucked each other after a football game or polished their Trans Ams.
I took notes in spiral diaries. In Tokyo, I imagined millions of residents dancing, dining, drinking, busy with murder and love. I felt like a musician or writer on the road—even if I was next door to my mother. After all, and after all of her study and behavioral rejiggering, she didn’t fit in anywhere either, and we both knew it.
Umami was discovered, or uncovered and revealed, by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda 107 years ago, when he realized that his bowl of cucumber soup transcended the ephemeral, and wondered why. He landed upon its distinct base: a particular seaweed mix called konbu that not only enriched the experience of its taste, but also quietly enhanced the essences of all the others surrounding it without being overt.
When she arrived in Tokyo, my mother became preoccupied. She had moved to the United States when she was twenty-eight; until then, she’d lived another life. Visits with relatives, former classmates, and friends consumed her schedule, and as I grew older, she extended my leash. Tokyo was vast, but it was also safe. Venturing out on my own was a kick, and I quickly became aware that, far from being offended, most locals were charmed by my attempts to muddle through the Japanese I’d learned as a kindergartner. Ordering a bowl of ramen from a street cart down a Shinjuku alleyway made me feel omnipotent. The soup man asked me elementary-level questions in slow motion, and I answered in solemn tones, eliciting nods of approval from him and his slurping salaryman customers. When I, too, slurped, they smiled.
We’re both trying to talk in borrowed languages, so this must matter.
Tokyo was overstuffed with places I loved: instrument shops with drum and guitar displays that made me salivate; record stores with bootlegs from Europe and Asia that I’d only heard of in vague rumors back home, where store clerks in Boston and New York had told me, “You’ll never find that,” or, “It will cost you a fortune.” They were mine for the taking in Japan. And the girls. The first time I realized that two were staring at me my guard went up. Standing in the record shop, I smelled ridicule, a boy’s kryptonite, until one of them asked, “Hello, how are you?” Stiff, accented, and loud, she didn’t back down; she wanted an answer.
I spoke to her in Japanese—equally stiff and accented, I’m sure. But instead of a sour look or pinched brow, she met me with eye flutters and gutteral laughter. The girls approached me and we had one of those halting, mutually humbling bilingual mash-up conversations that somehow feel more meaningful than a chat in your native tongue. Effort and vulnerability are aphrodisiacal. We’re both trying to talk in borrowed languages, so this must matter.
As a half-Japanese American teenager whose only recourse was outsider appeal, I suddenly realized that Japan was my ideal antipodean audience. In Tokyo, I was an outsider by default, a misfit, an odd flavor, but I did not offend. Instead of struggling to find a strategy to sell to onlookers who didn’t want or need me, I found the Japanese unfazed by my awkwardness, my complexity, my inbetweenness—they liked it, at least seemingly, and that was more than plenty good.
This was also when I fell in love with Japanese food. Into my early adolescence, relatives and Japanese restaurateurs prepared for me a Western kid’s menu separate from the dishes served to the rest. This meant hamburger, pork katsu, hot dogs, bland pizza slices, bread and potato salads. Breakfast was thick slabs of toast smeared with preserves, scrambled eggs and stubby pink sausages or lean Canadian-style bacon.
But my ramen-stand success stayed with me. The instant stuff I’d had in the US for an after-school snack no longer even warranted the name. The pork-bone tonkotsu broth at street carts and narrow back-alley counters was the real thing, and I began to suspect that I’d duped myself. I’d thought that Japanese food was strange, only sometimes good, not worth much thought. The Japanese versions of those Western culinary clichés served only to me were typically bland and unsatisfying. They were missing a center.
It started with the noodles. Soba and udon became something of an obsession. Tempura and fried tofu soba, wanko soba from Morioka, where my grandparents lived, cold soba and dipping sauce, soba and daikon radish. At Japanese restaurants in the States, the flavors never seemed to gel quite right. The salty was too strong, the savory had no bottom, no soul; the sweet was bracing, saccharine.
Umami has recently become a mantra for Western (so-called) celebrity chefs. Britain’s Heston Blumenthal is an avid, pioneering proponent. Blumenthal approaches cooking with a chemist’s alchemy. Umami’s “presence is often undetectable but its impact is undeniable,” he writes. His advocacy has fueled an umami-phenom book and lecture tours, and given the flavor pride of place in British hospital recipes and even a British Airways menu.
My disenchantment with the Japan I found in America fed the conflict with my American-ness. I enjoyed the ritual of Halloween trick-or-treating, for instance, the predictable, initial fun of posing in front of the mirror, selecting and tweaking the costume, then glaring through the mask at a new self—before the banality set in. The anticlimax of joining a procession of parents and other costumed kids, some with better renditions of my own ensemble, was humiliating. And I lacked a sweet tooth; my candy always went stale. Lollipops, gob stoppers, Milky Ways, or Peanut Butter Cups—didn’t matter what it was. Once I got it, I didn’t want it.
Eating ice cream was a chore—too cold gushing into my gums, too cloying. It had no staying power.
Possession gave me pleasure, a thief’s pride. I liked seeing the colorful, branded candy wrappers in the mornings as I dressed and after I returned home from school. But I never felt like opening any of them. Whatever my father failed to pick at sat in a bag or basket on the top of my dresser until it was deemed inedible, usually by my mother, who would toss the loot into the trash.
For a while, I accepted ice cream. It seemed like the right thing to do because it made everyone else giddy. Parents, kids, coaches, bus drivers: all lit up at the approach of an ice cream shop. They licked and puckered and sucked at the stuff with animal bliss. But for me, eating ice cream was a chore—too cold gushing into my gums, too cloying. It had no staying power.
Umami is now ascribed to the essences of meats like beef and lamb and the Italian boilerplate pizza combo of tomato and cheese. It is being touted in American restaurants, even applied as a name to a burger chain that began in California and has spread to New York City. It is thought to be in almost everything, but is still often misunderstood by those who seek to demystify it. It is a taste that is best experienced without the shine of a spotlight. It is an alternative flavor that subtly fulfills. It has been referred to as the elemental life force in breast milk. In short, umami is what needn’t be said: you know it when you get it.
No surprise that in Japan, no one talks about it. Like the givens of life—the soul, love, yearning, death—umami is what binds. That’s it.
When I was fourteen, my friend Dave’s older brother bought us a bottle of gin. Dave and I brought the bottle to our favorite railway bridge. Every bitter sip burned with promise, pointing somewhere beyond our sore and skinny asses, gesturing up to the skies, beyond the menial weights of schooldays and gossip and failed private gestures. The taste made the immediate endure and also referred to what lay past that moment. That night, looking down onto the swamp and cemetery below us, I realized that ice cream did not bring me pleasure. It was a decoy; its flavor was fleeting, superficial. Alcohol lasted, at least long enough to approximate flight.
To me, umami has become the singular, integrated experience of Japanese food, a sense of identity that lingers long after the meal has been eaten. At a recent, disappointing visit to a ramen restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the problem was clear. The noodles, broth, pork slices, spring onions, seaweed, and bamboo shoots were present, so were their distinctive flavors, yet nothing stuck. There was no middle, no heft, no identity to speak of. It looked as good and was ultimately as unappetizing as those post-Halloween piles of candy that I knew not to eat. A pretty, but fragmented, mess.
Twice in my adult life I have felt stripped of my disguise, the power that I now know to be my actual self, and both times by strangers. Riding the tube in London, I sat across from a swaying white-haired man who eventually slumped into a seat, leaning sideways, his long legs extended, one bent crookedly. He had been watching me as I read. Periodically I glanced up from my book and caught his blue eyes, unflinching. “I know what you are,” he finally said, sucking in breath. “Youse one of them Japanese Americans, aren’t you? A half-Jap, you are. Half-Jap.”
I got off at the next stop, which was far from my own. The man hadn’t followed me, and he was too drunk to be a physical threat. But I was shivering. I had to walk it off.
The unspoken, subterranean character of umami is the thing that feels most Japanese to me—and feels the most like what is Japanese in me. Which is why I shirk an inch at its embrace by the West: as if all you have to do is chemically deconstruct it to understand its power. Once you do that, of course, it has no power.
A few years later, while living in California, I was held up at the video store in Piedmont where I worked the night shift. Just before closing, two men, one black, one white, jogged straight to the counter and thrust a crinkly mid-sized black garbage bag at me. “Put all the money in the bag,” the white guy said. I was stunned, unmoving. The white guy jerked his head. “He’s got a gun.” And soon I felt it, the barrel pressed into my chest like a metal index finger. I put all the money in the bag and they left.
Was I engaged in extracurricular activities, perhaps? Had I had any previous encounters with the accused? Who were my parents?
After a few months, I was on the witness stand. My description had led to the arrest of the duo, whom the Oakland police had dubbed “salt and pepper,” for a series of drug-related crimes, including the murder of a supermarket clerk. I’d picked them out of the police lineup and there they were, seated before me in the chamber in orange jumpsuits. “Look around the courtroom,” I was instructed. “Do you see the accused?”
Their lawyer ripped into me, and the judge let him. What was I doing in California, working in a video store with an East Coast university education? Was I engaged in extracurricular activities, perhaps? Had I had any previous encounters with the accused? Who were my parents? Did my Japanese mother approve of my wayward course in life—working part time, wasting my future and her money? Asians put great stock in education, don’t they? Who was I, really?
Afterward, the cop who’d led me into the courtroom took me to a café and apologized. “I should have prepared you for that,” he said. “That guy’s an asshole, but I should have prepared you for him. You gotta know how important and valuable it is to have you serve as a witness. You’re the only one who didn’t back out, man. You’re doing the right thing.”
I didn’t agree. I felt hollowed out and blank. I’d done the wrong thing. Stepping up when I should have slunk away. They’d turned the spotlight on and I’d walked right into it. With one phone call, tomorrow, those two could have me killed.
But they couldn’t kill me if they didn’t know me, if they couldn’t pin me down. I flew to New York City a few days later, and after secreting myself modestly into Manhattan’s bloodstream, I moved to Japan.
Roland Kelts is the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling Japanamerica. His articles, essays, and fiction are published in The New Yorker, Time, the Wall Street Journal, Zoetrope: All Story, The Village Voice, A Public Space, Newsweek Japan, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Yomiuri, and the Japan Times, among others. He is also a frequent contributor to CNN, the BBC, NPR, and NHK. He is a visiting scholar at Keio University and contributing editor of Monkey Business, Japan’s premier literary magazine. His forthcoming novel is called Access, and he now divides his time between New York and Tokyo.
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