Dashi （だし）is Japanese for stock. Not the kind you buy on the ASX or Nasdaq stock exchange, but the kind that is much more wholesome and delicious.
Soup stock is one of those basic recipes found in almost every type of cuisine imaginable. They are the basis of all those famed and beloved soups and soup dishes: Greek avgolemono, Thai tom yum, Vietnamese pho, French bouillabaise, and Chinese won ton tang. It can be used to deglaze a roasting pan to make that fantastic gravy to go with your Thanksgiving turkey; filled with chillies for an eye-watering Sichuan-style ma la (“numb and hot”) hotpot; or filled with love and matzo balls from a Jewish mother to cure a cold away.
The Foundation of Japanese Cuisine
For Japanese cuisine, dashi is much more than a soup base. Dashi is the traditional foundation of all their soups, sauces, dressings, hotpots, and other soup-based dishes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a recipe that didn’t have either dashi or an ingredient that contains dashi. A well-made dashi is critical to making, for example, the ubiquitous miso（味噌・みそ） soup seen alongside almost every meal. A well-made dashi exemplifies the tenet of Japanese cuisine: full-flavoured simplicity.
Dashi differs from other stocks in several ways:
- Only a handful of ingredients are used: water, konbu （昆布・こんぶ - a type of seaweed; English spelling: ‘kombu’）, and dried fish and/or shiitake （椎茸・しいたけ） mushrooms
- The entire cooking process is very short; 30 minutes at most (although there are variations between regions and individual cooks)
- After making the initial dashi, the same ingredients are often used again to make a secondary dashi
- It can be drunk as it is – it is both a soup in itself and a soup base
History of Dashi
The existence of dashi can be traced back to 700 AD. Back then it was a simply made by boiling raw or boiled bonito/skipjack tuna (katsuo （鰹・かつお）). Over time the Japanese experimented with different ingredients and cooking techniques in order to produce a dashi with the greatest amount of umami （旨味・うまみ） (the fifth ‘savoury’ flavour found in foods such as tomatoes and bacon); however bonito appears to be the mainstay throughout time. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the Japanese discovered how to extract the most umami from the humble bonito: first by smoking it, the then by introducing a mould to ferment it (side note: the dried and fermented bonito is now called katsuobushi（鰹節・かつおぶし）katsuobushi blog post). Furthermore, the cooking time was reduced by shaving the katsuobushi into flakes (now called kezuribushi （削り節・けずりぶし）).
Making dashi from scratch at home used to be an essential part of the daily food preparation for the Japanese. However in modern times, it is viewed more as a daily inconvenience. One can attribute this to several reasons:
- Time: these days where time is money, even half an hour to make dashi is too steep a price for many.
- Convenience: walk into any food store or supermarket in Japan and you will surely find convenient alternatives – instant dashi powder, dashi stock cubes, and pre-made dashi.
- Space: the majority of city dwellers live in small spaces, with an even smaller space dedicated to the kitchen and food preparation.
Types of Dashi
When the word dashi comes up, many people associate it with the katsuobushi and konbu variety – much like how hot tubs are referred to as Jacuzzis. As mentioned previously though, dashi simply means ‘soup stock’. Different dashi result from using different ingredients, and from the cooking stage.
Types of dashi according to ingredients:
- Awase-dashi （合わせだし - lit. ‘combination stock’）: this is dashi made from katsuobushi and konbu. It is the most preferable, and hence the most prevalent, type.
- Iriko-dashi （炒り子・いりこだし）: iriko are dried baby sardines
- Nishin-dashi （鰊だし・にしんだし）: nishin are Pacific herrings.
- Iwashi-dashi （鰯だし・いわしだし）: iwashi are Japanese pilchards. Pilchards are small oily fish similar to sardines; they are part of the herring fish family.
- Konbu-dashi （昆布だし・こんぶだし）: stock made with only konbu. This is used for shoujin ryouri（精進料理・しょうじんりょうり - Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).
- Shiitake-dashi （椎茸だし・しいたけだし）: stock made with shiitake mushrooms and konbu. Also used for shoujin ryouri.
Most dashi will be awase-dashi. Reasons for the use of fish other than katsuobushi is either regional variation or preference, and relative price (with other fish generally being cheaper than katsuobushi, especially those that have been properly made).
Types of dashi according to cooking stage:
- Ichiban dashi （一番だし・いちばんだし - lit. ‘first stock’）: this is the initial stock that is made. It is clear, has a fresh taste, and a subtle sea flavour. Think of this as a consommé. Ichiban dashi is used to make delicate soups.
- Niban dashi （二番だし・にばんだし - lit. ‘second stock’）: this is the secondary stock that is made using the same ingredients left over from making ichiban dashi. It is cloudier in appearance, has a fisher taste, and an earthy flavour. It is used when a deeper, more complex flavour profile is required.
Fujita, C 2009, Dried Bonito, The Tokyo Foundation, viewed 1 April 2017, <http://www.tokyofoundation.org/en/topics/japanese-traditional-foods/vol.-15-dried-bonito>.
Lawson, J 2012, Zenbu Zen, Murdoch Books, Millers Point, NSW.
Japan Centre 2016, What is Dashi?, Japan Centre, viewed 1 April 2017, <https://www.japancentre.com/en/pages/39-dashi-and-bonito-stock>.
Just One Cookbook 2011, How to Make Dashi, Just One Cookbook, viewed 1 April 2017, <http://www.justonecookbook.com/how_to/how-to-make-dashi-jiru/>.
TheOfficialHungry 2013, How to Make Dashi (Japanese Sea Stock), video, YouTube, 23 May, viewed 5 April 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88AmUTq09y4>.