Sunday, November 28, 2010


The making of dashi is the foundation of Japanese cooking.

It is to Japanese cuisine what veal stock is to French cuisine. In fact, it is so fundamental to the very grammar of traditional Japanese cuisine that it can be safely said that there can be no Japanese cuisine in its absence.

However, its importance looms even larger in a multi-cultural universe.

Dashi is a umami rock-star.

Master it, and you can give a little more ooomph to all foods from Italian to Indonesian. (In fact, this is the "secret" to the success of many professional chefs. All they ever did in life was to add a ladle of dashi to their sauces, and suddenly they were "jeniuses" - yes, with the less common "j"-spelling.)

Well, you can be one too. But, first you must learn the basics of Japanese tradition.

The classic dashi begins with konbu -- also spelt kombu because in Japanese, the pronunciation is in-between the "em" and the "en" sounds -- and katsuobushi.

Konbu is a seaweed that is absurdly potent in umami flavor. When you buy it, it will look like it has a patina of whitish dust over it. Do NOT wash it under any circumstances. That patina is the source of the umami.

Katsuobushi is dried skip-jack tuna which is another rich source of umami. Most likely, the supermarket version will be the pre-sliced, paper-thin, pale-brownish-pink stuff but the real stuff is like an elongated rock-hard block of wood. It lasts forever, and has to be shaved fresh on an inverted wood-plane -- katsuobushi kezuriki. (Needless, to say, the CC heaps scorn on the supermarket one but it's not bad in a pinch.)

Both ingredients are dry, and will last forever in your pantry.

Classical Japanese technique calls for making two broths -- ichiban dashi and niban dashi -- quite literally, the first and second extractions.

Ichiban dashi is a clear, golden-hued, light stock with a delicate flavor meant for clear soups.

Niban dashi is a darker-hued, robust-flavored, all-purpose stock to cook with.

The recipe makes a little over 4 cups of each. The CC frequently doubles the recipe if needed. If you only need the more robust version, you can just skip the intermediate steps but make sure you understand all the details below.

There are many many other styles of dashi -- niboshi dashi with dried sardines, dashi made with shiitake mushrooms, entirely vegetarian versions made for Buddhist temple cuisine (shōjin ryōri), etc.

It's a world unto itself.


4 cups water
a 5" piece of konbu
3 handfuls of katsuobushi (two initially, one for later.)


Soak the konbu in 4 cups of water at room temperature for 30 minutes. Heat the water until just before it starts to boil. Remove the konbu, and set aside. If you don't remove it before the water boils, the broth will taste bitter which you don't want.

Bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat. Add about 1/2 cup of water to cool it down, and toss in two handfuls of the katsuobushi. If the water is too hot, it will be cloudy which is aesthetically unpleasant. (Note the similarity to classical French stock-making.)

Strain the liquid with a cheesecloth. Under NO circumstances press down on the solids which would also cause the broth to be cloudy.

The liquid is ichiban dashi.

To make niban dashi, add the solids and the retained konbu to four cups of water. Bring to a boil. As soon as it boils, turn off the heat, add an extra half-cup to cool it down, and add the extra handful of katsuobushi to it -- oigatsuo -- "chaser" katsuo. Steep for 3-4 minutes.

Filter with a cheesecloth but this time wring to extract the maximum flavor from it.

You have niban dashi.

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