At the foundation of nearly all Japanese food is a handful of key flavours and ingredients; salty fermented soy products such as miso and soy sauce; sweet mirin and aromatic sake rice wines; and the underlying essence of the sea- a delicate, smoky, ocean scented stock called dashi. At its most basic and purest form, dashi is simply dried kombu seaweed, rehydrated and steeped in water until it releases all of its delicious, rich minerals creating a savoury broth to boost the taste of any dish. More complicated versions of the liquor add sawdust-like smoked bonito flakes, small dried fish such as sardines or anchovies and maybe even a handful of woody, earthy tasting shiitake mushrooms to supercharge the umami qualities of this liquid flavour bomb.
Umami- the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour- is a loan word from Japanese, literally meaning ‘delicious flavour’ and it describes the brothy, savoury, meaty taste identified when the tongue’s receptors react to the presence of glutamic acid in food. Dried kombu is particularly rich in glutamic acid (so much so that you can even see crystals of it on the seaweed’s surface, looking like a white powdery bloom) and the savoury aspects become even stronger when combined with bonito flakes thanks to the synergistic relationship between glutamates and the inosinates present in nearly all dried seafood. Only explained by science in the early twentieth century, the cooks of Japan have known about the mouth watering qualities of combining these flavours together for centuries, using dashi in everything from pancake batters to soups and stews.
Nowadays there are plenty of very good instant dashi powders and granules easily available in supermarkets- we use them regularly when we don’t want the dashi itself to be an overly prominent flavour in the finished dish- but nothing really compares to making your own, adjusting the seasoning to your liking, adding more or less of one ingredient or another, or perhaps even adding a completely new ingredient (the addition of smoked bacon or air dried ham creates an unconventional but intoxicatingly heady dashi that goes brilliantly with darker, red miso soups). We’re certain that after you’ve tried making your own dashi, you’ll want to always keep a packet of kombu and katsuobushi handy in your store cupboard at all times.
PS. Whatever you do, don’t throw away the used flavourings after you’ve strained your broth, make them into a delicious seasoning for your rice by following our recipe for homemade furikake or cook them up again to make niban dashi.
- 1L cold water (if you live in a hard water area, try using a low-mineral bottled water such as Volvic instead of tap water)
- 20g dried kombu
- 20g katsuobushi flakes
- 10g niboshi (dried sardines), optional
- Cut the kombu into three or four pieces with a pair of scissors and add it to a saucepan along with the water. Leave this to infuse for about twenty minutes before putting the pan on a low heat and gently warming up the water.
- While the water is heating up, remove and discard the heads from the niboshi if you’re using them- they can impart a slightly bitter taste to the dashi if left on. When the water reaches a very gentle simmer, turn off the heat and scatter the katsuobushi flakes and niboshi over the surface.
- Let the dashi infuse for a further ten minutes before straining it into a bowl through a fine sieve, or even better, a coffee filter. The dashi is best used straight away, but it can be stored in the fridge for two or three days, although the flavour will deteriorate somewhat with time.
- After making the first or ichiban dashi, you can re-use the solid ingredients to make a less refined, fishier niban dashi; it’s not as strong or rounded a flavour as the ichiban dashi, but can be put to good use in a dish with powerful seasonings. Simply place the used ingredients in a pan with another litre of water, slowly bring it to a boil then simmer for ten minutes. As with the first dashi, pass it through a fine sieve or coffee filter and store in the fridge until ready to use.
Makes approximately 1 litre ichiban dashi stock and an optional 1 litre of niban dashi stock.