Delectable Japanese Cuisine: Dashi and Umami
Learn the basics of dashi and find out how to add more flavor into your food through umami! I’ll even reveal how you can create your own dashi with a fun and easy recipe.
What is dashi?
Dashi is a type of soup or stock used heavily in Japanese cuisine, as a base for miso soups, noodle soups and as a poaching liquid for many dishes. The flavor of dashi is savory and complex even though the process for making homemade dashi is quite simple. Instant dashi is available and readily used, even in Japan, but it pales in comparison to the flavor of dashi that you make yourself. Create your own with this fun and easy recipe!
How to make dashi
Dashi is made by quickly simmering one or more of the following ingredients in water.
All of these ingredients can be found at Asian grocers or online.
- Kombu: A type of kelp that is dried in the sun and rich in vitamins, minerals and umami (more on that soon).
- Katsuobushi or okaka (Bonito flakes): Thin, shave layers of bonito tuna that has been dried, fermented and smoked. Katsuobushi has a high inosinic acid content which also gives it a rich umami flavor.
- Niboshi: These are dried infant sardines (anchovies). These are used often in flavoring many Asian dishes or served simply as a snack.
- Dried Shiitake mushrooms: Rich in a deep, earthy flavor.
Basic dashi recipe:
Combine 6 cups of cold water along with 1 ounce of kombu in a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
Remove the pan from the heat and remove the kombu with tongs. To the water add 1 cup bonito flakes then let sit for 3 minutes.
Pour through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth. The dashi is now ready to use or will keep for four days refrigerated.
What is unami?
Umai – “delicious” mi – “taste”
Describing umami is a challenge. Some people call it savory but that too is hard to describe. I find that is best understood when we talk about what foods carry a high level of umami: Parmesan, tomatoes, mushrooms, cured meats, soy sauce and other fermented foods.
It is one of the five basic tastes along with salty, sweet, bitter and sour and was discovered in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda when he saw brown crystals that were left behind after a large amount of kombu broth had evaporated. Those crystals he identified as glutamic acid and when he tasted it he recognized a familiar taste found in many other foods but especially seaweed. He called this new taste umami and then not long after started mass-producing a synthetic umami known as monosodium glutamate or MSG. Which I imagine even reading that made you terrified but it has since been proved that MSG is not actually bad for you. Although I prefer my glutomates to come from natural sources.
How to get more unami in your food
Chances are you are already putting umami in your food without realizing it. That Parmesan you are grating over your pasta — umami. The tomato sauce on your pasta — umami. But one of the most umami rich foods you can make is a dashi made from kombu (seaweed) and bonito flakes.
There are now several products on the market that are made from dried ingredients that are naturally rich in umami. They are marketed as a way to make a good chef great and to add deep flavor to your food without added salt.
One such product is called Umami Dust and is the powdered form of lemon, black olive, anchovy, tomato and mushrooms.