The word “koku” is a new term, even within Japan, and is of unknown origin in the Japanese language. It may have come from Chinese, the evolutionary origin of many Japanese words, but no one knows for certain. Koku made an appearance in some advertising for Asahi beer in the 1980s, but the term hadn’t become part of the common lexicon until recently. Despite its meaning not being well understood currently, one can see the term koku plastered on the packaging and marketing materials of all variety of food products in Japan.
If the North American track record of fangirling for food trends coming from Japan is anything to go by, now is a great time to be debriefed on koku. There was the sushi boom of the 1990s; which also brought along edamame, tempura, and sake. Now we see ramen, and the entire izakaya concept, really taking off.
What is KOKU?
Professor Toru Fushiki, of Kyoto University, explains it in his book, “The Secret of Koku and Umami,” (コクと旨味の秘密). According to Fushiki, there are three layers of experience that are present when one eats a food that is rich in koku.
The first layer of koku has purely to do with our biological reaction to the chemicals that cause us to sense flavour. During Fushiki’s research, he found that it was only possible for mice to become addicted to foods that were sweet, umami, or that were fatty. The rest of the five flavours and other food substances were not craved or sought out by the mice. Since sugar, fat, and umami indicate nutritional elements necessary for all animals (energy, nutrients, and fat), his conclusion was that the first layer of koku is related to our basic needs for survival. In his report, mice never became addicted to salt even though it is necessary for survival, and he makes a conjecture that this relates to the ease at which the chemical is acquired and the risk of over-consuming it.
The second layer of koku is a physical reaction to flavor, but in this case it is not intrinsic and is based on learning from experience. We may enjoy eating steak because it is delicious, and contains nourishing fat and umami, but the smell of a steak on the grill that makes our mouths water is a reaction to the previous experience of enjoying steak. Fushiki calls this the “koku of association.” The second layer of koku also encompasses the experiential elements of texture and flavour, and the two types of aroma that we will classify as “nose aroma” (the typical association) and “palate aroma” (smell sensed through the pallet of the mouth). Flavour in the second layer is more sophisticated than the instinctually sought after sugar, fat, and umami. It includes the spatial and time difference qualities of a tasting experience; fore-, mid-, and aftertastes, and also the creation of flavours indistinguishable from their ingredients. We often enjoy being able to call out the ingredients as we taste them in a dish, and a master of cooking or tasting, can often to so with ease. It is this combining of flavours and hiding of original ingredients that adds depth of koku. We must be careful, however, when combining flavours not to make a muddled mess. If we think of flavor as colour for a moment, we can look at purple as a beautiful colour that is unique from its ingredients, blue and red, but if we add other colours without discretion, the result is always, greyish brown, regardless of what ingredient/colours we add.
The third layer of koku has not to do with flavor creating chemicals, but with a person's inner psychological world. In this last and deepest layer of koku, it is our sentience that makes food taste good. For example, in Japanese cuisine there is a type of soup called “sui mono” that is extremely simple, but is super tasty, if you have a learned understanding of the dish. Well-made sui mono does not contain high levels of nutrition, so it doesn't have the first layer of koku, but if you have developed your pallet to appreciate such fine simplicity, you will find a deep satisfaction with the flavor. Others who have yet to finely hone their palate may feel the need to add some soy sauce.
Learning about KOKU from a sushi master
So, despite the research, the current widespread use of the term koku in Japanese marketing, and our attempts here to understand and explain it, the concept is not always easy to wrap one’s head around. To gain a little more insight, we’ll refer to a documentary about a sushi chef who has received international acclaim, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In the film, Jiro-san and his son talk about how to make good sushi and the following quotes all refer to the second layer of koku.
“The temperature and freshness of the fish are crucial. Each ingredient has an ideal moment of deliciousness. Mastering the timing of sushi is difficult. It takes years of experience to develop your intuition. The sushi must be eaten immediately after it is served.”
"To explain umami... it takes more than just a good piece of tuna to create the sensation of umami. It's when you eat it together with vinegar-ed rice and soy sauce. The umami is brought out through the balance of the flavors."
The film has generated a huge amount of notoriety and traffic to Jiro-san’s shop, particularly by foreign visitors to Tokyo. If you were to google Jiro-san’s restaurant, you would find a huge amount of reviews, both of praise and critique. The following comment is a common sentiment:
"Even before they eat it, they are brainwashed to believe that it’s the best sushi in Japan."
Brainwashing is a strong term to explain it, but it also shows the power of the third layer of koku. Once you witness the passion that Jiro-san has for making sushi and how well trained his chefs are, you would gain a greater appreciation of it.
Knowing about KOKU can help us eat better food
With an understanding of the concept of koku, one would realize that junk foods are designed specifically to satisfy the first layer of koku, being loaded with sugar, fat, and the manmade chemical umami, MSG. Naturally, to prevent us from starving, these chemicals are what our brains are programmed to seek. Unfortunately, in the developed world where there is little danger of starvation, our brains still seek out sugar, fat, and umami, leading to widespread obesity and related health problems. We see a greater understanding and appreciation of the third layer of koku as a way to promote healthier eating. For example, the vegetables from a farmers' market, where you can interact with the farmer who grew them, learn about how the vegetables were grown and develop a relationship with the farmer, leads to a greater overall appreciation of the produce, and a better flavour. Why? We are feeling flavor from the story of the vegetables.
In Japan, we visited an organic farmer and made a short video about him in 2011. It is now, a few years later when we are learning about the concept of koku, that we are able to grasp what the farmer, Mr.Kataoka, was talking about. It was the third layer of koku.
"5:14; When you eat both organic vegetables and non-organic vegetables, the taste can be a bit different, but it's not that big a difference and I assume that most people don't realize that. But the human sense of taste is subjective and one might enjoy the taste more when they eat vegetables that were produced by someone they know or how you treat it and organic farming works in that way."
Educating oneself about food and gaining an awareness of how the mainstream food industry currently functions, and acknowledging the people who are trying to fix it, can contribute to the third layer of koku. This knowledge will surely also lead to better eating, both for health and satisfaction.
As novice food entrepreneurs, we enjoyed going to farmers markets in the summer of 2013. We want to express our gratitude to the people who have helped us enter this wonderful venue.
Thanks go to organizers Kim and Suzanna from Fairmont Farmer's Market and Corry from Sorauren Farmers’ Market, as well as all the market volunteers, and of course the customers who came to chat, share ideas and information, and purchase our products.
Happy Holidays Everyone!!