Dashi - The soul of Japanese cooking

KonbuI teach Japanese home cooking, and my motivation to begin my career was pretty straightforward – I wanted to demystify Japanese food.  Many people think of it as a very complicated cuisine, and yes, at the highest levels, it is an art form, but what cuisine isn’t? For the home cook though, the basic concept of Japanese cookery is remarkably simple – find the freshest ingredients in season, and add flavours that enhance its natural goodness. 

Supporting all this wonder flavours is dashi.

What is dashi? 

Dashi literally means, “extract fluid” and is a generic term for a stock used in Japanese cooking.  The most popular form of dashi is made with katsuo bushi (bonito flakes) and kombu (kelp) and it is dashi that gives Japanese food its unique flavour. 

Unlike otherstocks, dashi takes very little time to cook.  It is more of an infusion than a slow extraction process, and the results are also very different.  What you end up with is something very light and fragrant, a base that highlights the flavours of the other ingredients and infuses it with umami.  Umami is recognised as the fifth taste along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty., it is most often described as a savouriness, if you want to know more you should read our article about the science of taste.

So how is it possible that the three simple ingredients; water, kombu and katsuo bushi can combine to produce such complex flavours?  It all comes down to the work that goes into producing the katsuo bushi and kombu.  Katsuo has a rich history, in its dried form it appears in writings dating back to 712, and katsuo bushi as we know it today was developed in the early 1700s.

What is katsuo bushi?

Katsuo bushi is made from bonito (A fish similar to skipjack tuna) – which goes through a 12 step process which takes up to half a year and includes; boiling, smoking, and the addition of mould. The end product resembles a piece of wood and is shaved into thin flakes with a special culinary plane.  Katsuo bushi is rich in inosinate, a flavour enhancer.  

What is kombu?

Kombu is a dried piece of kelp, and the most treasured varieties come from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.  It is harvested in the summer, laid out to dry in the sun, and during the drying process, it develops a white powdery surface.  The powder is called mannit, and is yet another source of umami.  You can wipe kombu with a cloth if you must, but never wash it before use, as you will wash away a lot of the goodness.   Another component of kombu is glutamate, which is another powerful flavour enhancer. 

As you can see, dashi made from katsuo bushi and kombu is bursting with natural umami flavours. 

How to make dashi

There are many different recipes for dashi but they are all following the same basic process.  The kombu is heated in water first since it takes longer to impart flavour, and it can either be soaked beforehand or added straight into the water. You should take great care not to boil the liquid though!  Once you’ve achieved your desired flavour with the kombu, take it out, bring up the heat, and add the bonito flakes.  Let this cook until your desired strength of dashi is achieved. Take care not to let it sit too long, or it will become bitter.  After you have the right strength of flavour, strain it, and you are left with a basic dashi.

What is dashi used for?

Dashi is used in many things, miso soup being the most familiar.  Other popular uses are as dipping sauce for tempura and soba, soup for udon noodles, and also as a liquid for simmering vegetables in.

For me, dashi provides the magic in Japanese food.  It takes a few simple ingredients and coaxes maximum flavour out of them.  Every chef has his or her own recipe but the end result is heavenly.  Once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back to instant.  Try it and take that first step to creating your own authentic Japanese meal.

This article was written for Kitchen Geekery by Hiromi Stone, a talented Japanese cookery teacher from London, England.

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