Dashi is one of Japanese cuisine’s most important secret weapons. But what is dashi? It is a soup stock made of infusions of foods that are rich in umami, including bonito fish flakes, dried kombu kelp seaweed, dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried whole sardines. Dashi makes up the liquid base in most savoury Japanese dishes, including miso soup, udon and ramen noodle dishes, and nabe stews. It is also used as a seasoning in dishes like tamagoyaki omelettes and seaweed salads. Dashi is what gives these dishes that unique, slightly seafood-like, umami flavour that is most readily associated with Japanese cuisine.
The use of dashi in Japanese cuisine can be traced back to the 8th Century, when simple soup broths would be made using raw or boiled bonito fish. As the years went on, different areas of the country experimented with other ingredients to work out which foods yielded the richest savoury flavour. Dried small fish, dried kombu kelp seaweed, and dried shiitake mushrooms were all experimented with before the fermented, dried, and shaved bonito fish flakes now most commonly used in dashi were discovered in the Edo period (17th Century).
Unlike soup stocks from other national cuisines, which are typically made by boiling an assortment of meat, vegetables and spices for several hours, Japanese dashi will normally contain only one or two ingredients, and preparing it should take no longer than half an hour. The almost minimalist approach that is taken with dashi preparation reflects the Zen aesthetic principle of kanso, or simplicity, on which the Japanese place much importance.
Although preparing dashi from scratch is a shorter, simpler process than preparing other varieties of soup stock, it is nevertheless viewed as time-consuming and tiresome in Japanese households today. Nowadays most households keep this staple ingredient in the cupboard, in the form of dashi sauce or instant dashi granules (the most popular of which being Aji no Moto’s Hondashi and Shimaya’s Dashi no Moto).
If you are unsure about where to buy dashi stock, or are wondering what sort of dashi UK stores supply, look no further than Japan Centre. Whether you prefer to keep it simple with instant dashi or would like to make your dashi broth from scratch, you can buy dashi in all its forms online at japancentre.com.Read more about dashi in our blog What is Dashi Stock and How to Make it
If ‘What is dashi stock made from?’, were a question posed to a Japanese person, the first answer they would give is ‘katsuo’, meaning ‘bonito’. Also known as skipjack tuna, bonito fish contains natural high levels of sodium inosinate; one of the chemicals that gives foods like meat, fish, seaweed, and mushrooms their umami flavour.
To make traditional dashi, fermented and smoked bonito tuna fish is thinly shaved to make bonito flakes, or kezurikatsuo. These flakes are added to water, which is then heated to nearly boiling, allowing the flavours from the bonito flakes to infuse into the water (similarly to tea leaves). The solution is then strained, and the resulting liquid is dashi.
Nowadays most Japanese households do not make bonito flavoured dashi this way, instead opting for dashi bonito powders and ready-made dashi liquids. These instant dashi have a stronger, less nuanced flavour than the homemade variety.
If you are thinking of bringing quintessential Japanese flavour into your food with bonito online shopping at Japan Centre is a great place to start. Be sure to take a look at our range of bonito flakes and bonito flavoured dashi powders and sauces.
Kombu Kelp Seaweed: Kombu kelp dashi is the second most frequently used type of dashi after bonito. Kombu contains high amounts of glutamic acid; another chemical that is responsible for umami.
It is frequently used alongside bonito for a dashi stock with a more intense flavour. Since kombu is a seaweed, it is also 100% vegetarian- and vegan-friendly.
To make kombu dashi from scratch, large pieces of dried kombu seaweed are added to water, which is either left to infuse overnight or heated to near-boiling so that the umami flavours infuse more quickly. The solution is then strained, and the resulting liquid is the kombu dashi.
Niboshi Sardines: These small, dried sardines are an ideal dashi ingredient if you are looking for something with a stronger, bolder flavour than bonito or kombu.
Niboshi dashi is best used in heavier flavoured foods, such as red miso soup, or the broth in kakuni (braised pork belly).
To make niboshi dashi, pinch off and throw away the heads and guts of each sardine (to prevent bitterness), and either soak them in water overnight or heat them in water until near boiling before removing and straining out the dashi liquid.
Shiitake Mushrooms: Having been enjoyed in Japan and other East Asian countries for centuries, these popular mushrooms are now commonly sold either fresh or dried.
Many people prefer dried shiitake because their natural umami is drawn out during the sun drying process.
Like with the other varieties of dashi, shiitake dashi is made by soaking dried shiitake mushrooms in water overnight, or by heating up water containing shiitake mushrooms to near-boiling and straining out the flavour-infused liquid.
Shiitake dashi is often also made with kombu, because combining the two ingredients boosts the overall umami taste of the dashi.
Nowadays most Japanese people choose to use instant dashi granules rather than making dashi from scratch. However, making your own dashi is easier than you might think, and if you are hoping to learn to prepare truly authentic Japanese food, it would be well worth learning how to make your own dashi soup stock.
To make a mixed bonito fish and kombu kelp dashi, follow the instructions below.
Step 1 Assemble 20g dried kombu kelp, 30g bonito fish flakes, and 1L water.
Step 2 Clean your kombu kelp by gently wiping it down with a damp cloth. Do not clean off any of the powdery white substance from the kombu, as this is some of the umami flavour that you will want in your dashi.
Step 3 Cut a couple of slits into your kombu, then add it and your water to a saucepan. Allow to soak for 30 minutes or, ideally, overnight.
Step 4 Bring the dashi to a near-boil over a low to medium heat. Skim the surface of any impurities occasionally.
Step 5 When you start to see bubbles around the edge of the pan, take the pan off the heat and remove the kombu. Let the liquid cool down slightly.
Step 6 Add the bonito fish flakes and bring the dashi to the boil, again skimming the surface occasionally.
Step 7 When the dashi is boiling, reduce the heat, let the dashi simmer for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat. Let the fish flakes sink to the bottom (this will take about 10 minutes).
Step 8 Strain the dashi into a bowl using a sieve lined with a clean woven cloth or paper towel. When all the dashi strains through, give the cloth or paper towel a squeeze to release the last of the dashi.
Step 9 Use the dashi straight away, or transfer to a bottle and keep in the fridge for up to one week.
You can use the same bonito fish flakes and kombu kelp again to make second dashi, or ‘niban dashi’; a light dashi that pulls out the last of the umami flavour from the bonito and kombu. Simply add 4 cups water and your used bonito and kombu to a saucepan, bring to the boil over a high heat, then lower the heat and let simmer for ten minutes while skimming. Add 5g fresh bonito flakes for a little extra flavour, turn off the heat, let the bonito flakes sink to the bottom, and strain the second dashi through the cloth/paper towel and sieve.
If you have never used dashi in your cooking before, it might seem a little daunting at first. But dashi is as easy to use as a cube of chicken stock. Read on for some of the most common ways in which dashi is used in Japanese cooking.
A staple of the Japanese dining table, miso soup is a delicious combination of miso, umami-rich bonito broth, and tasty toppings such as wakame seaweed, chopped spring onions, or cubes of tofu.
To make two small servings:
- Dissolve 3g powdered dashi in 300ml water and bring to the boil
- Mix 1 tbsp miso with a little cool water until a smooth paste forms
- Once the dashi is boiling, turn off the heat, wait 1-2 minutes or until the dashi is no longer boiling, then add the miso paste mixture and stir through
- Serve in miso bowls with your favourite toppings.
Hot noodle soup dishes, such as ramen or udon, all use dashi as a base flavour in their broth. From there, other liquid seasonings, as well as the noodles and various meat and vegetable toppings (including wakame seaweed, kamaboko fishcake slices, spring onions, and Japanese bonito flakes), are added.
To make two servings of udon noodle soup:
- Dissolve 16g udon dashi stock in 400ml water and bring to the boil
- Bring back to the boil and add 2 servings’ worth of pre-cooked udon noodles. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes
- Serve in large bowls with your favourite toppings.
Known in Japanese as tsuke jiru, cold noodle soup dip is a more concentrated version of a dashi-based hot soup broth that is served in a small bowl with a tray of cold noodles on the side. Dip the noodles in the soup for a noodle dish better suited for the warmer months.
To make approx. 300ml:
- Dissolve 5g dashi powder in 250ml water
- Combine in a saucepan with 2tbsp mirin rice wine, 65ml soy sauce, and several pinches of Japanese bonito flakes
- Bring everything to the boil, turn off the heat, and strain through a fine sieve
- Allow to cool to room temperature before serving with prepared cold soba or udon noodles
Nimono dishes are meat and vegetables that have simmered in dashi and other seasonings until the liquid has been absorbed or has evaporated. This makes the meat and vegetables gloriously tender; full and bursting with the umami flavours of the dashi.
Some popular varieties of nimono in Japanese cuisine include:
- Nikujaga: Beef and potatoes cooked in dashi with mirin rice wine and soy sauce
- Chikuzenni: Chicken, shiitake mushrooms, lotus roots and other vegetables cooked in dashi with cooking sake, mirin, and soy sauce
- Misoni: Fish and/or vegetables cooked in both dashi and miso
Nabe is a type of Japanese stew, made by simmering meat, vegetables, noodles, and any other ingredients you might like to include, in a large pot with lightly flavoured dashi broth and other seasonings.
To make an easy nabe for two:
- Chop up your favourite meat and vegetables
- Add 3g dashi stock, 500ml water, and soy sauce and mirin to taste into a heavy-bottomed saucepan or nabe pot. Set over a medium heat and bring to a simmer
- Add your meat, vegetable, and noodle ingredients according to how long they take to cook. When the last ingredient is added, cover and allow everything to simmer until done
- Serve in separate bowls.