The Japanese basic stock, the pillar of the Japanese cuisine which provides Japanese cuisine with its characteristic flavor. The quality of a Japanese dish is determined by the quality of the dashi that seasons it. Dashi is the foundation for soups, simmered dishes, salad dressings, marinades and much more.
Traditionally, there are five kinds of dashi:
- Konbu dashi ("Kelp stock"), made with only konbu. This is vegetarian stock, shojin dashi, a delicate and clear broth.
How to make: After wiping the kelp with a paper towel (do not rinse!), bring 40 grams of kelp to the boil over medium heat in one liter of water. Remove the konbu before the water starts boiling (after about 10 minutes, never allow the kelp to boil as it will become bitter). Your stock is finished! Alternatively, you can also simply soak the kelp in cold water for about eight hours (overnight), without heating.
- Ichiban dashi ("First brew stock") made from konbu (kelp) and katsuo-bushi (shavings of preserved, fermented bonito). Ichiban dashi has a subtle and refined flavor and weak color and is used for sensitive preparations as clear soups (suimono), chawan-mushi, and dipping sauces for cold soba noodles.
How to make: Follow the instructions for making kelp stock. Immediately after removing the kelp, add 30 grams of bonito flakes (kezurikatsuo or hanakatsuo). Bring again to the boil (takes about 10 seconds), immediately turn off the heat, skim off the foam and let the mixture stand for a few minutes. Strain through a fine sieve - and your stock is ready.
- Niban dashi ("Second brew stock") made from konbu and katsuo-bushi by reusing the ingredients used for making ichiban dashi. Niban dashi has a stronger aroma than ichiban dashi and a cloudy appearance and serves as a basic seasoning. It is used for miso soup, as broth for hot noodles, and as a liquid for simmering other ingredients (nimono). It can also be used to dilute soy sauce and mirin resulting in a sauce called warishita which is used in one-pot dishes.
How to make: simmer the kelp and bonito flakes used for making ichiban dashi for 15 to 20 minutes in 1.5 liter of water - do this immediately after making the ichiban dashi, as the ingredients can't be kept. At the end add 15 grams of new bonito flakes and then immediately remove from the heat. Allow the new flakes to settle for about one minute, then remove foam and strain the liquid through a sieve. (Now the ingredients should be discarded, you can't reuse them a third time!).
- Shiitake dashi ("Shiitake stock"). Another vegetarian stock, made from dried shiitake mushrooms. Like kelp stock it can also be combined with katsuobushi.
How to make: just soak 30 grams of dried shiitake mushrooms in one liter of water for about two to three hours. For regular stock, so-called koshin dried shiitake are used; for a stronger flavor, use donko dried shiitake.
- Niboshi dashi ("Sardine stock"), a type of fish stock, made with dried sardines or anchovies, which is a more hearty type of dashi. Used in miso soup or nabemono (one-pot dishes), as sardine stock is more savory than bonito stock. Also often used in hot broth for udon noodles.
How to make: Remove the heads and entrails of the fish as those would lead to bitterness. Bring 40 grams of niboshi to the boil in one liter of water or kelp stock and simmer for about 8 minutes. Strain through a sieve after removing from the heat.
For good dashi, it is important to have good quality soft water. Hard water contains minerals as calcium and magnesium which influence the taste of food, especially when - as is the case in the Japanese cuisine - no strong spices or sauces are being used. Soft water, on the contrary, possesses a mild and sweet taste that fits well to the character of dashi, i.e. to emphasize the own taste of the ingredients. No wonder that countries with hard water, such as European countries, have as basic sauce a strong-tasting sauce on the basis of meat extract. Good Japanese food always starts with a perfect dashi!
"Umami" is the basic characteristic of dashi: the "fifth taste" which enhances the taste the ingredients possess of themselves (defined in 1908 by Ikeda Kikunae). That is why kelp, bonito flakes and shiitake mushrooms are used to make dashi: modern research has shown that these ingredients possess the highest concentration of umami elements. When used together, they further enhance the umami through a synergistic effect. For example, by combining kelp with flakes of fermented and preserved bonito, the umami factor increases eight to ten times.
Top restaurants are proud of the excellent dashi they make fresh every day. However, despite the fact that dashi is simple and quick to make, our convenience culture has led to the virtual disappearance of fresh dashi from home-cooking, where often instant dashi is used, either in liquid or granulated form.