Fourth Annual Bento Competition Takes a Look at the "Fifth Flavor"

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There were smiles all around as five competitors gathered around two tables in the H-E-B Community Room at Bunker Hill and I-10 to create the most beautiful bentos that they could from the random meats, cheeses and vegetables provided. Competitors had only ten minutes to make a winning bento. Themes ranged from very cute to neat, practical bentos anyone could proudly claim as his or her lunch.

The winner, Junko Janvier, had a great deal of experience in making bentos, as she just recently came to the United States from Fukuoka, Japan. The other competitors were Runa Katayama, Sayaka Stephens, Joshiah Ho and Yuko Ouchi.

The bento competition always has an educational seminar, and this year's theme was "umami," that mysterious fifth taste that is an integral part of washoku, or the traditional dietary culture of Japan.

(The four widely accepted tastes picked up by receptors on the tongue are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. There's still some controversy on whether umami is a fifth.)

Foods that are known to have that rich flavor include mushrooms, seaweed, miso soup and dashi. It's also why monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is sometimes added to foods -- to enhance that mouth-filling, meaty taste.

Some people claim sensitivity to MSG, but may be surprised to learn that common foods like tomatoes, potatoes and some types of cheese have it. MSG is even added to Doritos and other savory snack chips. It's the sodium salt of glutamic acid and is one of the most abundant naturally occurring amino acids.

The instructor, Noriko Herring, set up a blind taste test for attendees, preparing three different types of miso soup for them to try. One soup had only miso paste and water. Another had miso and dashi, a broth made from another ingredient high in umami: dried bonito flakes. The third incorporated water, miso paste and Ajinomoto Hondashi, a prepared dashi soup mix that includes MSG as well as disodium inosinate, another salt that works in conjunction with the MSG to provide that umami flavor.

The test was repeated with a vegetable dish. Spinach in one case was prepared with only soy sauce and water, while another included dashi, soy, sake and mirin. Participants each time preferred the one that included the ingredients that provide umami.

As with every year, afterward participants were invited to snack on the remaining bento ingredients -- meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables provided by H-E-B -- and try their hand at making onigiri, or rice balls that sometimes include a surprise ingredient in the center, like a pickled plum, and are rolled in seaweed seasoning.

There were some adorable surprise guests this year, as a troop of Girl Scouts who had been selling their addictive cookies in front of the store wandered in to see what was going on.

The bento competition is open to everyone, so keep your eyes open for next year's announcement. You can take a look at this year's announcement and rules here. It's always fun, and there's always something new to learn about Japanese cuisine and culture.

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