Dashi the (really) old fashioned way
A friend and I were once discussing what smells we consider representative of certain places. I can’t remember what her answer was but without a doubt the smell that I associate with my home state of Idaho is sagebrush, particularly the pungent aroma of sagebrush on the top of a mountain on a winter day that is so cold the top layer of snow has frozen solid. As for Japan I’d really like to say that something poetic and delicately beautiful embodies Japan to me, like fragrant hinoki wood or incense wafting from a Buddhist temple. But I’m afraid that if I had to choose one smell that represents Japan to me, it would be the humble scent of homemade dashi.
The word “dashi” is used quite frequently these days in English, and most people know that it refers to the soup stock that forms the basis of nearly all traditional Japanese flavors. In Japanese it is written as “出汁,” a combination of the characters for “extract” and “broth.” The importance of dashi in the pantheon of Japanese food cannot be overstated; dashi is the basis of nearly all Japanese flavors and is used in multiple dishes for most meals.
The most widely used dashi is made from dried konbu (a type of kelp) and katsuo-bushi (flakes of smoked and dried katsuo, a fish that is called either Bonito or Skipjack Tuna in English). However, it can be made from a variety of other dry ingredients including shiitake mushrooms, dried radish or gourd strips, iriko (dried anchovies), and a range of other things.
No doubt the phrase “fish flakes” conjures up a somewhat unpleasant image for many people, but I assure you that dashi made from the above two ingredients does not smell or taste at all “fishy” – it has a rich, smoky odor and flavor that enhances the taste of other ingredients without overpowering them. Although it has a pleasant taste on its own, the main purpose of dashi (which is full of natural monosodium glutamate) is to enhance the flavor of the other ingredients in a dish
When I make dashi I never measure anything. It’s so simple that I’m not even going to post a recipe: I just put a piece of konbu in cold water, heat it until bubbles appear but aren’t yet breaking the surface, turn off the heat, and throw in a handful of katsuo-bushi. I often use iriko as well, but rather than using whole dried anchovies I’m a fan of the iriko flakes that have shown up fairly recently at my supermarket. Finally, you strain the fish flakes out of your dashi by using a fine mesh strainer, a piece of sarashi (a type of Japanese fabric) or cheesecloth, or both. If you’re feeling extra lazy you can even put the strainer into the pot before you put the fish flakes in to eliminate the need for straining into a different container. I’m sure there are some dashi purists out there who would say that this is unacceptable, but I’ve also seen special dashi pots made for just this purpose so I think you can safely use this method you want to. Some people will tell you to put the fish flakes in while the water is simmering and cook them for a few moments, but I’m of the opinion that this results in a slightly bitter flavor.
In any case, making dashi requires very little time or energy, especially when you’re already heating water for something. This is why it boggles my mind that most modern Japanese people wouldn’t dream of making dashi from scratch, instead resorting to Hon-Dashi or other instant products that are absolutely loaded with MSG. The research on whether MSG is actually harmful or not is somewhat inconclusive but I refuse to use it because it leaves a terrible aftertaste and because fake dashi tastes absolutely horrible compared to the real thing.
Something inspired me lately to try to take my dashi to the next level, so I finally decided to take the plunge and purchase the necessary materials to make my own fresh katsuo-bushi. This could be considered the equivalent of grinding your own spices instead of buying the stuff that has been sitting around on a shelf for months, and I had always meant to try but always been a bit intimidated by the equipment required.
The first step was to procure a katsuo-bushi kezuriki, an implement whose sole purpose is to shave thin strips of katsuo-bushi. Despite the fact that most Japanese people of my generation have never even touched one of these things, I actually learned this word in my Japanese 101 class because for some unfathomable reason the makers of the textbook we used in class included this in one of the vocabulary lists. My professor had a hilariously tough time explaining exactly what a “plane for shaving Bonito fish” meant, let me tell you.
I bought my kezuriki at Sano Miso in Kameido, a fantastic miso shop that also carries a range of dashi paraphernalia. There I was confronted with the harsh fact that kezuriki are really expensive. The high quality models made out of real wood with little drawers to collect the shavings were several hundred dollars which was way, way out of my price range. Since this was my first foray into the realm of kezuriki and I wasn’t yet sure how often I would use this thing, I decided to go for the budget model for the time being.
Next was buying a dried katsuo. My husband was meeting a friend in Ueno so I sent him to Iseoto, a shop specializing in materials for making dashi. (Here’s a terrible picture of Iseoto that I took once on a Sunday when the streets of the Ameyoko area were so crammed with people that I could barely hold my camera up safely.)
He came back with this beauty which, as you can see by the wrapper, weights 275 grams and cost 2,015 yen. It sounds expensive but it’s actually not that much more than the equivalent amount of pre-shaved flakes. And in true Japanese style, the katsuo-bushi came with helpful cartoon instructions.
A struggle ensued to adjust the blade so that it would create big slivers rather than small powdery pieces. After banging on the lid with a wooden mallet for a long time and probably really annoying our neighbors, we finally found the right spot and managed to begin shaving the katsuo without totally pulverizing it, although our technique clearly needs some practice. The red color is caused by the fish’s blood. (If this grosses you out in any way you’re probably better off buying the stuff in the bag.)
Something surprising happened when I made my first batch of dashi from the freshly shaved katsuo-bushi. After setting the flakes to steep in the pot I walked into the bedroom for a few minutes. When I came back my nose immediately detected a savory fragrance that was drifting through the kitchen, perfuming it with a rich, smoky smell that immediately made me ravenously hungry. I spent the next five minutes taking in big whiffs of the dashi – which was also more brilliantly colored than regular dashi for some reason – before I finally relinquished it to make miso soup.
So what’s the verdict? Using fresh katsuo-bushi is just like the difference between buying coffee grounds and freshly grinding your own before use – there’s really no comparison. I can see myself taking five minutes to grate some every few days because it makes a real difference in the fragrance and taste of the dashi, especially when making something that depends heavily on the flavor of the stock like hot pot dishes or clear soups. But if you don’t want to mess around with a whole dried fish, don’t feel like buying a kezuriki, or don’t make dashi very often the commercial preparation will do. Just please don’t use Hon-Dashi. Your taste buds will thank you.
Sano Miso (main shop)
1-35-8 Kameido, Koto-ku, Tokyo
6-4-10 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo