Dashi and umami

If food is music, then this is the bass line. It underpins everything, holding the meal together as much as the seasonal theme of ingredients does. It runs through dishes and over your taste buds just on the edge of conscious thought. It makes your mouth water, but odds are that you seldom notice it.
Dashi is the unsung hero of Japanese cuisine. Though the word translates as broth or stock, in Japanese food dashi is used to infuse flavour –or umami, the fifth taste – into blanched vegetables and simmered dishes, is used as the flavour base of miso soup, dipping sauces and often marinades. It adds depth to egg dishes, from the familiar “tamago” omelette to steamed savoury custards.
Umami is the taste you didn’t learn about in school. It is the flavour that makes you salivate, and often to feel full and satisfied. Umami is made of glutamates, a kind of amino acid made famous by monosodium glutamate or MSG, which artificially does the same thing. These glutamates are found in protein-rich foods which make up so large a part of the western diet and so small a portion of the Japanese one. Meats and cheeses are particularly high in umami. Adding umami – in the form of dashi – to Japanese dishes emphasises existing flavours, highlighting rather than masking individual ingredients, but its end role is the satisfaction of the diner.
Of the five methods used in traditional Japanese cooking, dashi appears commonly as marinades for grilled dishes, the steaming broth in steamed dishes, the stock in simmered dishes, in dressings for raw dishes, and in dipping sauces for fried dishes. It is found everywhere from that quick bowl of udon noodles you slurped down for lunch yesterday to the sauce you dipped your crispy tempura in at the work party last week. Dashi is the soul of Japanese food.
While dashi of all kinds can be readily and cheaply purchased in powdered or pack form, it is nearly as simple, likely as cheap, and much more satisfying to reach into the roots of Japanese cooking and make your own from scratch. None of the most common forms of dashi call for more than three ingredients: one of these being water. Few cooking techniques are so instantly gratifying.
There are several types of dashi – the most common being what Elizabeth Andoh calls “basic sea stock” in her excellent primer in Japanese cooking, Washoku. In Japanese, this is often simply called dashi, though it is occasionally referred to as katsuo dashi, from the main ingredient katsuobushi, or smoked dried skipjack tuna. Katsuobushi makes high-umami-dashi, and is used in Japanese cuisine to infuse flavour into nearly everything, but don’t worry – skipjack populations are deemed an excellent choice for eating by the good folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
While there are as many recipes for dashi as there are cooks, katsuo dashi is easily made without one, by rehydrating a piece of konbu, a kind of kelp sometimes called sea tangle, in a saucepan of water – a couple of cups will do. Bring the water to a simmer, remove the konbu, and add a generous handful of katsuobushi at the moment you take the broth off the heat. A few minutes after the katsubushi sinks below the surface, taste the stock. If it seems too watery, simply add more katsuobushi. If it is too salty, you can thin it later. After straining out the katsuobushi you will have a clear, fragrant stock.
Favoured for miso soup, dashi made with tiny dried  sardines, called iriko or niboshi, is even simpler to make. Happily, sardine populations have also been given the all-clear.  Iriko dashi is made by adding a small handful of the little fish to the two cups of water in your saucepan, and bringing the water to a boil. If you’re fussy, are sensitive to bitter flavours, or want to eat the tiny fish in your soup, you can break off the stomachs and heads before starting. The strained broth is then ready.
While dashi is an essential ingredient – without it, miso soup for example tastes thin and one-dimensional – vegetarian versions are preferred in some dishes, and are the basis vegan temples cuisine. Simple to make and readily substituted for the seafood versions, vegetarian dashi can be made from konbu, dried shiitake mushrooms, or a combination of the two.  To do this, let the konbu or shiitake soak at least several hours in water, and then bring the water to a boil and simmer for a few minutes. When strained, it’s ready to use.
Miso Soup: 2 cups dashi, 2 tablespoons miso. (Any will do, or you can mix your favourites. Red and white miso blend well together.) Heat the dashi to boiling and turn off the heat. Mix the miso in using a strainer, whisk, or adding the hot broth gradually to the miso in a ladle or separate bowl. Pour over chopped silken tofu and scallions or serve with your favourite additions.

Story by Skye Hohmann
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2009