Japanese cuisine is characterised by its abundance of umami-flavoured foods, and the key to this is dashi.
So, what is dashi? It’s a family of stocks made from umami-rich ingredients that form the base of many savoury dishes. Think of it as a flavourful liquid base made with a few simple ingredients.
In this article, we’ll explore the versatility of dashi and how it can be incorporated into many recipes.
The Origin and History of Dashi
The roots of dashi go back centuries in Japanese culinary history. This fundamental broth, with its unique umami character, has been the cornerstone of Japanese cooking since ancient times.
Originally, with the emergence of Buddhism in Japan, there was an increased demand for vegetarian meals. Kombu, a type of kelp, was imported from China and became a favoured ingredient. As techniques evolved, chefs began to realise the depth of flavour it could provide when simmered in water, leading to the earliest versions of kombu dashi.
Later, as dietary habits expanded, katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) was introduced, adding another dimension to this foundational broth. Over the centuries, dashi has seen various adaptations, but its essence remains – a rich, flavourful broth that captures the heart of Japanese cuisine.
Japanese dashi comes in many variations. The type of dashi you’d like depends on your choice of ingredients and what flavour you want to achieve. Consider kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes), shiitake mushrooms, dried sardines or a combination. The easiest application of dashi is the creation of broths or soups, such as traditional Japanese soups like miso soup, clear soup, and noodle broths such as ramen or udon dishes.
Here are some common variations of Japanese dashi soups:
#1 Kombu (kelp) dashi
Made by soaking kombu in water, this is a common dashi for miso soup, clear soups and hotpot due to its mild flavour. Build on this base by adding mushrooms, vegetables and meat to enrich the soup with additional flavours.
#2 Shiitake Dashi
Shiitake dashi broth base is made by rehydrating dried shiitake mushrooms, which are one of the most popular Japanese mushrooms for cooking. The by-product of this process is shiitake dashi, which is usually added to noodles, or combined with kombu dashi for greater flavour.
#3 Awase dashi
Awase means “to combine”, or "mixed" in Japanese. This all-purpose Japanese dashi is made with a combination of Japanese ingredients, such as kombu and dried bonito flakes. Personally, this is my favourite type of dashi as it has a richer flavour and can be used in a wide range of Japanese dishes.
Depending on what kind of flavours you’re looking for, add other ingredients once you’ve finished cooking your dashi. For more flavourful broths, choose dried ingredients for a stronger taste profile.
Dashi-Based Sauces and Seasonings
Dashi is also used as a base for sauces and seasoning in Japanese cuisine, making it the perfect addition to vegetables and meat, or as a dip for an instant umami flavour boost. Some examples of dashi-based sauces include ponzu sauce, teriyaki sauce, tonkatsu sauce and even unagi sauce.
While sauces do taste good on their own, consider adding dashi for a greater depth of flavour. For example, a simple ponzu sauce recipe might not call for dashi, but adding dashi will help accentuate flavours.
Moreover, why not make your own seasoning and sauces instead of buying them? I love this because you get to balance the flavours entirely on your own without the addition of preservatives! Adjust the levels of ingredients for a fuller, richer taste that suits your preference and keep them stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Dashi in Rice and Noodle Dishes
Consider adding Japanese dashi to noodle and rice dishes as well, as its versatile nature enables it to elevate the flavours of whatever it’s added to.
For example, I like to cook rice and noodles in dashi instead of water for a fuller taste.
When cooking hot soba noodles, I find that a simple dashi broth of kelp and bonito flakes creates a savoury base. Try adding scallions, vegetables and some meat to build on this flavour base.
In takkikomi gohan, a Japanese mixed rice dish, rice is cooked in kombu dashi so that the rice soaks up all of its umami flavour goodness. I would recommend adding a selection of vegetables and meat items to give it a sweeter flavour.
Similarly, in yakisoba, one of my favourite stir-fried noodle dish, noodles are cooked in dashi broth before other ingredients are thrown in.
Experiment with different types of dashi for a greater variety of flavours!
Dashi in Other Dishes
Examples of fusion dishes that use Japanese dashi as a key ingredient, such as dashi risotto or dashi-infused cocktails
Beyond rice and noodles, I like to use dashi as a marinade, or even as a braise for vegetables. You could also try blanching vegetables in dashi instead of water.
In Japanese cuisine, people enjoy Nishime (simmered vegetables and chicken) where various vegetables and chicken are sautéed before they’re added to simmer in a dashi broth. As the flavours slowly seep into the broth, the result is a fragrant mix of umami taste.
For meats, consider marinating them in dashi-based seasonings. A simple marinade I like to use consists of dashi broth, soy sauce and mirin. I like to add these to some chicken, set aside, and cook together for a very flavourful meal.
Beyond Japanese food, dashi can also play a very integral role in dishes from other cuisines. Tired of the usual vinaigrette in your salads? Consider a dashi sauce mixed with soy sauce for a savoury kick. Stretch your imagination further and incorporate these in risotto, porridge or even alcohol for unique but delicious dashi-based cocktails!
The Remarkable Benefits of Dashi
Beyond its quintessential taste, Japanese dashi boasts several health benefits:
- Rich in minerals: Kombu, one of the primary ingredients in dashi, is a powerhouse of essential minerals, particularly iodine, which is beneficial for thyroid health.
- Low in calories: A typical bowl of dashi contains minimal calories, making it an excellent base for those watching their calorie intake.
- Natural MSG: The natural glutamates present in dashi ingredients provide the umami flavour, acting as a natural alternative to artificial MSG.
- Digestive Health: Ingredients like katsuobushi are believed to aid digestion and promote gut health.
- Anti-aging properties: Certain amino acids in kombu have been associated with anti-aging properties, promoting skin health and elasticity.
How to Make Dashi
Although Japanese dashi can be a little time-consuming to make, the results are worthwhile. As mentioned, key ingredients of typical dashi recipes include kombu, katsuobushi, shiitake mushrooms, dried sardines or a combination of these ingredients. Here’s a very simple recipe I use to make a simple awase dashi, with a combination of kombu and katsuobushi:
- Soak kombu in water for about 2-3 hours; if you have time, soaking it overnight is better to release much of the flavours from the kombu
- When ready, heat the mixture and bring it to a simmer until just before it starts to boil
- Remove the kombu and add the katsuobushi
- After the katsuobushi has settled to the bottom, remove the pot from the heat
- Strain the mixture
Remember to remove the kombu from the mixture as leaving it there for too long will make the overall broth very slimy. Store the dashi in the fridge for 3-5 days, or keep it in the freezer for 2 weeks.
If you’re short on time, try looking for dashi packets or powder at your local Asian or Japanese marts. Simply add the dashi packet to water and cook it over medium heat; once the mixture comes to a boil, remove the dashi packet. You could also create a broth with instant dashi stock powder by adding it to water and boiling the mixture for a much faster way of cooking with dashi.
If you want more umami goodness in your cooking, consider adding dashi. The versatility of this ingredient makes it a great addition to any meal – even recipes outside Japanese cuisine! Explore the endless possibilities of this ingredient in your kitchen today by adding dashi or giving some dashi recipes a go.