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Rice, Noodles, Breads, and Soups - Dashi

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: Dried whole bonito (at right) and shaved (left) in a traditional katsuobushi grater. © Provided by DKBooks Dried whole bonito (at right) and shaved (left) in a traditional katsuobushi grater.

Dried shiitake mushrooms (top) and dried scallops (bottom).

Photo: Dried shiitake mushrooms (top) and dried scallops (bottom). © Provided by DKBooks Dried shiitake mushrooms (top) and dried scallops (bottom).

Kombu, a special kelp.

Photo: Kombu, a special kelp. © Provided by DKBooks Kombu, a special kelp.

Dried whole bonito (at right) and shaved (left) in a traditional katsuobushi grater.


Have you ever made French stock? In the sauce chapter of this guide, you’ll see elaborate recipes for Veal Stock and sauce Perigeux. I’ve browned meat and sautéed carrots, onions, and celery. I’ve simmered for hours, and skimmed off the flotillas of fat as they rose to the surface. Fortunately for me, dashi, the indispensable Japanese stock, used for everything from soups to risotto, takes about 10 minutes of active time to make and, most often, requires just two ingredients: katsuobushi (flakes of cured bonito) and kombu (kelp). Depending upon the dish they are making, cooks occasionally add dried shiitake mushrooms, niboshi (tiny dried anchovies), and dried mackerel. Of course, like many Japanese foods, what seems simple is, in fact, subtle and complex.

In early summer, fisherman set out in kombu boats to harvest the leaves from the cold, shallow waters off the coast of northern Japan, particularly near Hokkaido. They use long poles outfitted with hooks to remove the large leaves—often nearly three feet long and several inches wide—before heading back to the shore to dry the kombu in the sun. It comes in many different grades according to where it’s harvested and how it’s treated. The kombu you buy may be scattered with white blotches or flecks. Don’t wash this off or you’ll reduce kombu’s amazing flavor-giving potential, but clean off any sand or grit with a wet towel.

Let me explain: Kombu does not bring a strong flavor to dashi, but it contributes something essential, what the Japanese call umami. One of the basic tastes in Japan—along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, umami refers to a less tangible quality that enhances other flavors. Its presence is felt in foods like mushrooms and meat, for example.

Why does it do this? Some of you, I’m afraid, won’t like the answer, but please, bear with me. I will explain why there’s nothing to worry about. Kombu contains a large amount of naturally occurring free glutamates—that’s right, similar to MSG. In fact, kombu, one of the main ingredients in dashi, has more of this than most other foods. In its natural form, its not harmful in the least. Just consider a more common food that is remarkably high in this natural form of MSG: Parmesan cheese. Tomatoes are also high in free glutamate, so it’s no wonder the two ingredients became such a popular tandem in Italy, each one enhancing the flavor of the other.

Another naturally occurring substance associated with umami is sodium inosinate. And guess what’s chocked full of it? That’s right, katsuobushi. To make it, bonito (katsuo), a fish with deep red meat and a flavor similar to tuna, are halved, boiled, then boned. Next it’s smoked, set out in the sun to dry, and finally cured. At the end of this long process, which can take over a year, the katsuobushi resemble nothing so much as blocks of wood. Some vendors still sell these blocks in specialty shops in Japan, but nowadays it’s much more common to find bags of wispy shaved katsuobushi. Machines do this job now. Cooks used to use special apparati called katsuobushi kezuri to shave the blocks themselves. I’m sure some still do. At my restaurants, we often shave the best quality bonito freshly over special dishes. For basic dashi, buy packaged bonito flakes of the best quality you can find.

Many restaurants and even many home cooks make stock using powdered dashi, a product similar to bouillon cubes. I make my dashi from scratch. When I’m in the kitchen making dashi, I feel exhilarated. First I wipe the kombu clean, without losing all the white powder as much of its flavor lies there. Then I soak the kombu overnight in a saucepan filled with spring water. The next day, I bring the water to the barest simmer and scatter the katsuobushi over the surface of the water, which produces a whiff of smokiness. I remove the pan from the heat and let it stand until the katsuobushi sinks to the bottom of the pan. (For a full recipe, see Dashi.)

Strained, the resulting liquid is a clear stock called ichiban dashi, or “first dashi.” I don’t discard the katsuobushi and kombu—too much time and care has gone into their production; plus I’ve paid good money for them. Instead I use them to make a second, slightly murkier stock, called niban dashi, this time simmering them for a while to fully extract their flavor.

Because ichiban dashi offers the purest expression of ingredients, it functions as a testament to a chef’s skill and is often served, more or less unadorned, as suimono, or clear soup. Brought to the table in a covered bowl, you remove the lid just before you eat it, sending its aroma billowing toward your nose. Niban dashi, whose flavor is less refined though still quite tasty, is used for miso soup, stews, and other dishes in which it plays a supporting, rather than leading, role.

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