When my package of Takii Umami Powder ran out recently, more was definitely necessary. I’d mostly been using it to make an extremely simple dip — organic sour cream, minced green onions and/or chives, fresh-ground black pepper, plus lots of Takii — that people found confoundingly delicious. Failing to remember where I’d gotten the Takii, I saw that it read “Product of Singapore,” but bore a Mercer Island address. It seemed only fair to call the owners to thank them and hear their story. Here’s what Alex Dang and Tony Pai had to say — they met as undergrads at the University of Washington’s business school, by the way — plus another easy, excellent Takii recipe that’s better for you than chips and dip.
Bethany Jean Clement: For those who’ve been living under a culinary rock, what is umami, and why is it so great?
Alex Dang: Umami is the scientifically recognized fifth taste. It means “savory deliciousness” in Japanese. You may have heard people say bacon makes everything better, or cheese makes everything better. That’s the concept of umami: that rich, delicious, satisfying taste you get from certain foods. Mushrooms are also a great source of umami — shiitake mushrooms in particular, which is what Takii is made from. So that’s the inspiration for the name.
Bethany: How did the two of you come up with Takii? I understand that all of the credit, as with everything, goes to your moms.
Alex: After Tony and I started appreciating food more in our early 20s, we realized our moms coincidentally used this same [umami powder] seasoning in their cooking at home. He’s like, “Yeah, my mom uses it all the time — this is great stuff.” It was catered to the Asian vegetarian Buddhist consumer. And it’s such a great seasoning for all types of cuisines. And I was chatting with Tony — “We should introduce this to the wider Western foodie consumer.” I gave some to my friends and my wife’s friends, and they loved it — “Where can we get this?” So there was something there.
Tony Pai: At that time, umami was a well-established concept, but it hadn’t really ridden into the mainstream, so we saw a good opportunity to ride that wave. Our first full year [working on Takii] was in 2012. It was a little slower start — we took the slow-burn approach. Then chefs started coming to us, and it was just word-of-mouth.
Bethany: Any particular chefs?
Alex: Garrett Melkonian — he was the former executive chef of Mamnoon, and Mamnoon won a bunch of awards in 2015-2016. So that was nice.
Tony: Oh, and Sean Brock, as well. He was a huge proponent of ours, back when he was doing Husk in South Carolina.
Alex: GQ magazine asked him for his favorite pantry items, and Takii was one of them. So that was amazing to see.
Bethany: What are your family backgrounds?
Tony: My family is from Taiwan — they immigrated here. My dad came for grad school, and I was born and raised here in Seattle.
Alex: My parents are from Vietnam — Chinese Vietnamese. They were refugees of the Vietnam War. So they were boat people, and settled in Seattle, and I grew up in Seattle.
Bethany: So you both say your moms used Takii-style umami seasoning in everything … ?
Tony: [laughs] Not literally everything, but it almost seemed like it! It was a good replacement for monosodium glutamate — MSG powder — [though she’d] have no problem using MSG. But with our family being Buddhist, and my mom a pretty strict vegetarian, using the seasoning really brought that food to life more. It didn’t resurrect the food [laughs], but it really added to the taste — any vegetable you can think of, it was really good. A lot of the stir-fries. Gosh, I could just rattle off a whole bunch of these dishes.
Alex: I like to think of Takii as a more flavorful, savory version of salt. And yeah — exactly like Tony said — my family is also Buddhist, so lots of vegetarian cooking in our household, where basically whatever dish — stir-fries, soups, sauces — a little Takii goes a long way to help add a lot of flavor and depth and dimension.
Bethany: So given the Buddhist and vegetarian origins of Takii, have vegetarians and vegans just completely freaked out that it’s life-changing for them?
Alex: We’ve heard some great feedback from vegans and vegetarians.
Tony: On top of that, a woman and her child were at a demo we were doing, and she told us, “Oh, my children do not eat vegetables.” But when we gave them the [broccoli with Takii] sample, they just couldn’t have enough of it. I thought that was the most fulfilling and meaningful feedback, right? [Laughs] Taking something unpalatable to someone, and healthy, right, and making it taste better. You know, that’s a win!
Bethany: You guys are getting picky kids to eat their damn vegetables! It’s a miracle!
Tony: Exactly! Right!?
Tony: It also makes me a better cook, because I’m awful. It makes things I make somewhat palatable!
Alex: My favorite application for Takii is stir-fried broccoli. I eat broccoli a lot — multiple times a week — and just a dash of Takii over broccoli, and a splash of water helps the Takii dissolve and coat the vegetables. Mix that around a little until tender, and it’s amazing.
Tony: I like to cook these really, really simple stir-fried vegetables. I wish I could give you [something] more complex, but sometimes the best applications are the simplest, right? So I would do bok choy, and just do garlic, a little oil and some water. A little soy sauce, as well. And just stir-fry that, and voilà — it’s darn good.
Bethany: Is there anything else you want to tell me about yourselves? Or your moms?
Tony: It’s kind of funny — my mom, she was wondering, why are you doing this? What did I send you to school for [laughs], you’re selling this product that I’ve always used? And it’s really because we want to reconnect with our culture by sharing a bit of our upbringing. Yes, we went to university — let’s use those skills and start our business. But, yeah, it’s always about sharing our culture.
Alex: And making it just an easy way for us to bring a taste of home and Mom’s cooking into our own kitchens.
Taiwanese Sautéed Cabbage
Takii Umami Powder co-founder Tony Pai says this is “a simple and delicious dish my mom often prepared, and one that my wife and I love to make as well. The recipe comes from Taiwanese-American food blogger ChihYu Smith of I Heart Umami, who also happens to use Takii — it’s pretty much the same as what we would do, but with more detail.”
1½ lbs. Taiwanese cabbage or green cabbage (about a quarter of one whole cabbage)
2 tablespoons avocado oil [or substitute stir-fry oil of choice]
1½ teaspoons Takii Umami Powder
1 tablespoon vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
1. Remove the core of the cabbage and dice it into bite-size pieces. They don’t need to be of uniform shape. If you dice the stem parts slightly smaller than the leafy parts, the cabbage gets cooked more evenly.
2. Rinse the cabbage and set it aside to drain well.
3. Preheat a 12-inch skillet or wok over medium-heat until it’s too hot to place your palm about 2-3 inches above the surface. Add oil and swirl it around. If the skillet becomes too smoky, that means it is overheated — simply set it aside to cool for a few seconds before putting it back on the heat source again.
4. Add cabbage — be careful of the splatter. Sauté over high heat, scooping and tossing frequently for about 3 minutes.
5. Sprinkle the cabbage with Takii and keep sautéing for 1 minute. Add stock and sauté for 1 additional minute. The cabbage should be tender yet crisp.
6. Turn off heat, taste and see if you’d like to add more Takii. Serve warm or at room temperature with seared shrimp, grilled chicken, pork, steak or fish, or as a stand-alone simple side dish.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.