Aspergillus oryzae – Fermentation and Umami

The recipe – Stir-fried beef with Black Bean Sauce

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend out of town, in the bush, with a bit of luxury. Simply put, I was at a luxury lodge. Not my normal stomping ground, but very, very relaxing nevertheless.

For the past week or so, I’d been nose-deep in René Redzepi’s Work in Progress – Journal, a fascinating day-by-day account of a year at Noma Restaurant.

Food Lab. Photo sourced from
Food Lab. Photo sourced from

For those of you who do not know: Noma Restaurant is located in Copenhagen, Denmark and was voted as the best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

In 2012, Redzepi was listed among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Not bad for a chef, and not bad for a chef not yet forty years old.

The chefs at Noma, (and there are many), are foragers. Many of the restaurant’s suppliers (and there are many of them) are foragers too. This means that ingredients come straight from nature and sometimes from the areas surrounding the restaurant. One of the key features of Redzepi’s food is exploring flavour profiles that occur naturally in the wild, and pairing ingredients that co-habitats. A case in point: stuffing a rabbit with the herbs and plants that were most likely its last meal. Simple, yet revolutionary.

Food Lab. Photo sourced from
Food Lab. Photo sourced from

But there is more to admire about the man and his vision: diversity and sustainability. In Noma’s Dry Kitchen, ingredients are preserved, saved to be used during the unforgiving Nordic winters when nature’s offerings are inaccessible and sparse.

With “trash cooking” the Noma team explores ways to build dishes from matter that would end up in the refuse bin – fish scales, cod-head skin, fish tongues and jaws and so the list goes on. Nothing should be wasted, everything can be delicious food, the onus is on the chef to experiment and discover ways make it work.

Redzepi’s journal is an attempt to understand the creative process, i.e. the process that brings an idea to completion – taking the ordinary and turning it into something very special. Thus, it is not just about adding and matching ingredients, the outcome must be true: more and better flavour.

Journal - A work in progress
Journal – A work in progress

I was sitting on a stoep overlooking the savanna when I finished Redzepi’s Journal. There was a soft drizzle, and the fresh smell of wet grass was everywhere. To me, it was the smell that defines the African savanna. It occurs only here, nowhere else. Yet, somewhere in my mind, a switch has been flipped.

Watching a warthog scurry across the wet savanna plain, an idea was born: how can one bring that smell of the African savanna to a plate of food? Warthog, or oryx or kudu baked in silky bushman grass (Stipagrostis uniplumis)? Or ostrich seared in lucerne-infused butter?

Food Lab. Photo sourced from
Food Lab. Photo sourced from

One of the Noma ventures is the Nordic Food Lab: kind of a food laboratory, where all kinds of interesting experiments with food and ingredients are undertaken to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the food that we eat.

It is here that I first learned about Aspergillus oryzae, the mold that is most commonly used in Asian cultures for fermentation. It has been in use as far back as 300 BC to produce grain-based ingredients such as soy sauce, miso, fermented black beans and fermented grain-based drinks such as Saki.

Exposing steamed or cooked grains to Aspergillus oryzae produces a culture (called kōji in Japanese, qu in Chinese, nurukgyun in Korean) that forms the basis of many of the Umami flavours associated with Asian cuisines.

Aspergillus oryzae
Aspergillus oryzae

I have no idea who first discovered the culinary applications of Aspergillus oryzae but are you not grateful that someone did?

How often have you dismissed something simply because you took no time or made no effort to explore and understand it? It could be a person, an animal, a flower, a blade grass, a tree or a benevolent mold such as Aspergillus oryzae.

Food Lab. Photo sourced from
Food Lab. Photo sourced from

Redzepi’s Journal is more than notes about a man, his team and his restaurant. It is a lesson in life. To discover the purpose and meaning of what and who is around us, we need to look closer. Be curious and thoughtful. Work very hard and fail very often. It is very frustrating; sometimes even emotionally crippling. But it is there: everything has potential; we just need to find it. Isn’t it time we start looking?

The dish for this week is an ode to Aspergillus oryzae. It contains soy sauce and fermented black beans; two products of Aspergillus oryzae and treats you can find in most supermarkets or any China Town.



5 Comments Add yours

  1. luckystaranise says:

    Very interesting post, thanks!

    1. Thank you! Much appreciated.

  2. treesshrubs says:

    What an amazing and interesting post!! It has given me much to think about …thankyouTrees

  3. Reblogged this on Empires, Cannibals, and Magic Fish Bones and commented:
    I’m trying to slowly digest the work of Ferran Adrià, Dan Barber,Nathan Myhrvold and René Redzepi and see where they are in concert and where they are definitely not playing the same tune. Whether it’s molecular gastronomy, third plate or foraging–are these like-minded endeavors or radically different approaches to food and the world? Here’s a reblog from The Curious Kitchen as a way of beginning this discursive and gustatory process.

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