A Brief Introduction to Dashi, the Heart of Japanese Cuisine

  • 2 min read

Written by Teni Wada (@wadateni)

Temperatures are dropping and now is the perfect time to expand your repertoire of soul warming Japanese dishes such as soups and nabes (vegetable-rich hot pots for simmering vegetables, seafood, or meats).

Read a Japanese cookbook, and you’re bound to come acrossdashi, a soup stock or broth that is perhaps the quintessential Japanese ingredient. But what exactly is dashi, and should you make your own? Here’s a brief introduction to dashi, the heart of Japanese cuisine.

What makes dashi so special is the presence of glutamate, the source of the umami flavor. The result is a subtle, savory taste that seasons your dish without going overboard.

There are four common bases for dashi:

Dried shiitake mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms for dashi

Niboshi/iriko (dried baby sardines)

Dried sardines for dashi

Kombu (kelp)

Dried kombu seaweed for dashi

Katsuobushi(tissue paper-thin slices of dried bonito fish)

Dried bonito flakes for dashi

If the thought of making dashi indimates you, you’ll be pleased to know that making homemade dashi is far less-labor intensive than chicken or beef stock made from scratch. In fact, most dashi can be made by combining dry ingredients with water, then bringing to a slow boil then simmering for 20 minutes.

Of the four types of dashi, kombu and katsuobushi dashi are the most popular. In particular, kombu dashi uses only two ingredients -- dried kelp and water -- making it an excellent choice for vegans and vegetarians.

However,awase dashi, or a mixture of kombu and katsuobushi, is perhaps the most commonly used in Japanese cooking. If your recipe calls for dashi, you can’t go wrong with this mixture.  

To prepare, simple soak dried kombu in water for several hours before brining to a slow boil and simmering. Add katsuobushi and let steep. Strain and use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

If you are pressed for time, there’s certainly nothing wrong with springing for instant dashi. They are often found in single serving packets or in a large package. Liquid instant dashi is also available. While instant dashi is convenient, keep it mind that the resulting flavor is often stronger due to the presence of artificial flavor enhancers. To combat this, add a smaller amount of flavor-rich ingredients like soy sauce.

If you prefer your dashi subtle, then homemade is the way to go. But whether you choose to go instant or make your own, you can try your hand at classic Japanese dishes like miso soup.nimono (simmered dishes), andoden (a traditional stew of daikon, fish cakes, hard boiled eggs and other ingredients).

About the author: Teni Wada appreciates the simplicity and versatility of Japanese cooking ingredients and enjoys recreating her mother-in-law's dishes. A foodie at heart, she is always on the lookout for seasonal snacks and drinks to share on Twitter (@wadateni). You can also find Teni Wada on Instagram (@wadateni) and her lifestyle blog, babykaiju.com where she documents motherhood in Japan.

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