Essentials of Japanese Cooking: ?Unlock Umami-Rich Dashi

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“Dashi is a subtle broth with the capacity to enhance and intensify the flavor of those foods with which it is cooked or blended. That ability is locked within kombu (kelp) and katsuo bushi (smoky bonito fish flakes), the two ingredients used to make this basic sea stock: Both are both rich in water-soluble glutamates.” – Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku and Kansha, and leading expert on Japanese cuisine

If umami represents the soul of Japanese cooking, then dashi certainly represents the heart, enhancing and harmonizing the flavors in many Japanese dishes. This month, we continue our series about umami with a tutorial about how to make dashi. We also feature recipes that use dashi, showcasing the breadth of dishes that rely on this essential ingredient.

In classical Japanese cooking, dashi is commonly made with water, kelp (konbu) and the shavings of dried, smoked skipjack tuna (bonito flakes or katsuobushi). Two types of dashi can be prepared from one batch of ingredients: ichiban dashi and niban dashi. Ichiban dashi is the first extraction of umami from the konbu and katsuobushi, resulting in a pale, clear and delicately fragrant broth. Niban dashi is the second extraction of umami from the leftover konbu and katsuobushi used to make ichiban dashi and results in bolder flavor. Japanese cooks use both types of dashi to flavor specific types of dishes and to fully utilize the ingredients without waste.

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Ichiban dashi is simple to make, as long as a few techniques are followed with precision. To extract the full flavor-enhancing properties of the glutamate-rich ingredients, start with cold water. Place the water in a saucepan, along with a square piece of konbu. Heat the water over medium heat until just before it boils, when bubbles start to appear along the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove the konbu, and let the water come to a full boil. Removing the konbu at this precise time prevents the glutamates extracted from the seaweed from becoming bitter due to prolonged exposure to high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool. Then, add the katsuobushi to the saucepan and heat the mixture again until it reaches a boil. Turn the heat off and let the bonito flakes steep in the liquid. Finally, strain the liquid through several layers of paper towel or cheesecloth, into a clean glass container, so that no small pieces of fish or seaweed are left in the broth to muddle the flavor.

This step-by-step recipe for Ichiban Dashi notes the actual proportions, temperatures and cooking times…and we know you’ll find it enjoyable to make!

Niban dashi is made using the already-cooked seaweed and fish left over from preparing ichiban dashi. Add both ingredients back into the saucepan, add a few cups of water, simmer the mixture for several minutes over low heat, then strain.

In the case of both ichiban and niban dashi, the keys to creating the best dashi lie in extracting and preserving the glutamates from the konbu and katsuobushi. Prolonged cooking, excessively high heat and inadequate straining can result in a dull and fishy broth that sullies, rather than enhances, the dishes that rely on dashi to infuse them with umami.

Ichiban dashi is used in many types of dishes, from soups to appetizers to salads. We have some great recipes that use ichiban dashi on our website, like Tofu Misoshiru, Shrimp Ball Broth, Hiyashi Chawanmushi and Crab & Cucumber Sunomono.

Bringing out the flavor of fresh, high-quality ingredients using umami-rich dashi is at the core of Japanese culinary tradition. We encourage you to make your own dashi, and as always, would love to hear about your experience!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: ?Umami and Dashi

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Last month we began our exploration of umami, the “delicious taste” discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is the rich flavor imparted from foods that contain high levels of glutamates, a type of amino acid that, when ingested, tells the brain that the food the body is about to receive is savory, desirable and full of protein.

Umami is at the heart of a Japanese cooking liquid called dashi, which was studied by Dr. Ikeda and which forms the foundation of many Japanese dishes. Dashi is an all-purpose, light stock made simply from an umami-rich ingredient and water. Its role in Japanese cuisine can’t be overemphasized, as it is used to season simmered and steamed dishes, flavor soups and create a base for marinades.

While preparing dashi is simple, it requires a meticulous attention to detail.

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Top left, shaved Bonito flakes; bottom, konbu

When made from scratch, dashi is made from clean, soft water. Various ingredients are added to the water to give it flavor and to impart umami. The classic way to prepare dashi is to make ichibandashi, which typically consists of simmering shaved bonito flakes—dried, smoked skipjack tuna—and dried konbu kelp in water. While this type of dashi is used to prepare many Japanese dishes, many cooks also use variations of the classic dashi in modern Japanese cooking. Dashi made from dried shiitake mushrooms, dried baby anchovies or sardines, dried scallops, or even just konbu or only bonito flakes have become common additions to the Japanese cook’s dashi repertoire.

When making dashi at home, it’s important to use high-quality ingredients that have been air dried, avoiding frozen ones, as freezing alters the flavor and aroma of the ingredients. The best quality bonito comes in stick form and is approximately six-to-eight inches in length. Bonito sticks look like dense, brown hunks of wood that have an ash-white coating. The sticks are made by filleting skipjack tuna, boiling the fillets, then removing the skin and bones from the fish. The fish is smoked multiple times to dry it and to preserve the richness in the fish’s flavor. After, the dried fish is cultured to continue its preservation, and then finally, dried in the open air. When two sticks of bonito are struck together, they should make a hollow sound, like musical instruments! Dried bonito sticks are then shaved using an appliance similar to a mandoline, called a katsuobushi kezuri, and result in pink curls of fish.

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Konbu harvesting

Vegetarian dashi is commonly made using dried konbu or shiitake mushrooms, again with both ingredients of the highest quality. The most prized type of konbu is harvested from the cold waters off of the northern coast of Hokkaido. These giant kelp have wide, thick leaves and a rich amber color. They are harvested, rinsed in sea water and hung out to air dry. Once dried, the konbu will have a distinctive whitish coat, made up of natural sea salts and minerals, which holds much of the seaweed’s flavor. The dried konbu is simply wiped with a damp cloth and then it’s ready to use in making dashi. Simmering dried shiitake mushrooms also makes a vegetarian version of dashi, one with a darker color and more intense flavor.

Cooks often make their dashi from scratch, but when pressed for time, flavorful, high-quality instant, dashi products can be found at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. Modern cooks often keep both as staples in their pantries, giving them versatile options for this foundational ingredient in Japanese cooking.

We’ll share recipes about how to make dashi in our next blog post, so stay tuned! And as always, we’d love to hear how you’ve made dashi, so leave us a comment.