By Luc Gougeon
Once you figure out that Japanese food is much more than sushi and instant ramen, you might start wondering what is behind the Japanese taste. It’s only after being in Japan for a couple of months that I got the answer.
Dashi, or Japanese stock, is the essence of Japanese cooking, the secret taste behind countless recipes including the popular miso soup found in sushi restaurants around the world. This deceptively simple recipe, which is passed on from one generation to the next, is still in many families a daily ritual; you make dashi, prepare rice and then you start your day. The ingredients are very simple — kelp, dried bonito and water — and the whole process should take you less than an hour from start to finish.
- One piece of kombu. Something around the size of a credit card should be more than enough.
- A hand full of katsu-bushi or niboshi without the head and guts.
- A pot full of cold water.
Step 1: You will need a piece of kombu. This hard, dark green or sometimes black seaweed is sold in any grocery store in Japan. The white powder on the kombu is a source of natural glutamate and is the main chemical behind the “savouriness”, or umami, of dashi. Whole books have been written about umami; let’s just say that the combination of kombu and dried bonito gives dashi a particular gustative punch that make you go, “Wow this soup is DELICIOUS!” You will need to let the kombu stand in cold water for at least two hours. This procedure will extract the glutamate.
Step 2: You need to slowly heat up the pot containing the soaking water containing the piece of kombu. Once you see a couple of bubbles coming up, remove the kombu. Kombu should never, never, ever be boiled.
Step 3: For this step, you can use either little dried sardines called niboshi or dried katsuo-bushi flakes. Katsuo-bushi is dried bonito fish — it’s the brownish stuff that dances on your okonomiyaki or takoyaki. Bring the kombu stock to a soft boil, put a handful of katsuo-bushi in the pot and turn down the heat. Let it simmer very gently for about a minute and turn off the heat. It’s important to skim the surface and remove the foam.
If you decide to use niboshi instead, you will need to remove the head of the fish and the guts and proceed in the same way.
Once the katsuo-bushi or niboshi has sunk to the bottom of the pot, pass the whole stock through a coffee filter, a cheese cloth, a chinois or a very fine mesh strainer.
Voilà! You’ve made you first dashi.
What to do with this marvellous stock?
The most obvious answer would be a simple vegetable soup. Simply boil any vegetable you like in this stock. Once the vegetables are tender, add your favourite miso, some hard tofu and you’ve got a very healthy and hearty soup.
By the way, miso should not be boiled.