The world of Japanese soups and broths has a lot of overlap. Here are the differences between three of the most common: dashi, shiro dashi and tsuyu.
At the core of Japanese cooking is one of the most iconic preparations: dashi. Often used as a base for soups and dishes, mastering dashi can give you a strong foundation for cooking Japanese food.
At its simplest, dashi is a broth made by boiling ingredients. Common ingredients include konbu, katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna/bonito flakes), or a combination of both (known as awase). Simmered and strained, you are left with an umami rich broth that can be used on its own or as a base for soups or sauces. Another popular version of dashi comes from dried shiitake mushrooms. Konbu and shiitake are flavorful vegan option to make dashi and is found in shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine). You can also buy dashi granules and just add water to make instant dashi.
Shiro dashi, on the other hand, is a combination of traditional dashi, along with white soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. While the additions change from recipe to recipe, what you get is a savory, salty, umami packed stock that is a light yellow to amber in color. This lighter color makes it a great choice for adding additional umami and flavor to dishes where a dark soy sauce might discolor the ingredients. You can regularly find shiro dashi in supermarkets or stores online, but since it's often heavily concentrated, it's best to dilute it with water so it doesn't overpower your dish.
Tsuyu is a third common stock found in Japan. Also called mentsuyu (noodle stock) or tentsuyu (tempura dipping sauce), tsuyu has many of the same ingredients as shiro dashi, but uses dark soy sauce instead of shiro dashi’s white soy sauce. The proportion of ingredients change as well, giving tsuyu a slightly sweeter taste. Most often tsuyu is used as a thin soup base for udon noodles, or slightly more concentrated as tsuketsuyu - a sauce for dipping noodles into. Like shirodashi, you can find it in grocery stores sold in concentrated bottles which then needs to be diluted in water.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!