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Japanese Food Fundamental: Dashi

My cooking goal for 2009 is to expand my Japanese culinary repertoire. I got started early in December by learning how to make dashi. This clear, basic stock is fundamental to Japanese cooking, the base for most soups and a key ingredient in many non-soup dishes. Its flavor is very subtle, yet when it's done right, it can take a dish from good to great.

Intriguingly, dashi is appearing in the cuisine of some established Western chefs, including Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin) and Jonathan Benno (Per Se). Check out the New York Times story about this trend.

Making dashi is easy, but it requires a trip to an Asian market for the two key ingredients: kombu, an edible type of kelp cultivated in Japan, and katsuobushi, fine shavings of dried bonito, a type of tuna.

The process is simple: Place a 4- to 5-inch strip of kombu in a pot with about 5 cups of cold water and slowly bring the water to a boil. Just before the water boils, remove the kelp and turn off the heat. Add a handful (2 or 3 Tablespoons) of bonito flakes and steep. When the flakes sink to the bottom of the pot, strain the liquid through a fine sieve. What's left is a very delicate, clear broth that smells faintly of the sea.

I had always used the shortcut of instant dashi (or even chicken bouillon, which is what my Japanese-American mother often uses in her cooking). If you're in a pinch, this certainly won't ruin a recipe. But instant dashi can be harsh and salty compared to the real thing. And now that I've learned how simple it is to make dashi from scratch, I don't think I'll go back to those shortcuts.

So far I've used dashi as a base for miso soup, for udon, and as an ingredient in dishes such as braised gobo (burdock) with carrots, a traditional Japanese New Year's food. It appears in most of the recipes I've been eyeing in various Japanese cookbooks.

Check out the video below the jump for a decent demo of making dashi. Note that it appears to use different proportions and an extra step (adding cold water before putting in the bonito flakes) from my simpler, handed-down recipe (which, by the way, is untested by our Test Kitchens). You can also try our vegegarian dashi recipe for a fishless alternative.