Whereas chicken stock has a regular place on American recipe ingredient lists, Japanese cuisine has its own version of stock that is the foundation of many dishes. Dashi is Japanese stock that becomes the base of many Japanese foods, such as miso soup, dipping sauce, agedashi tofu, and nimono (simmered dishes). There are different kinds of dashi, each of which is used in different types of dishes. What they all have in common, though, is that every version of dashi contributes the flavor of umami (the fifth taste) to a dish.
The Types of Dashi
The most simple version of dashi is kombu dashi; it is often used for soup broths and stocks and is made from dried kelp (kombu). But the most common type of dashi is awase dashi, which combines kombu with katsuo-bushi, which are dried bonito (fish related to tuna) flakes. Another type of dashi is called iriko dashi, made from dried small anchovies or sardines (called niboshi), while hoshi-shiitake dashi is flavored by dried shiitake mushrooms. Kombu dashi and dried shiitake mushroom dashi are known as good vegetarian stocks.
How Dashi Is Used
The proportion of ingredients used to make dashi and how the resulting dashi is used can vary depending on one's preference, but there are a few typical guidelines Japanese cooks often follow.
- Kombu dashi has the most subtle flavor and is the easiest to make. It is used for clear soups and nabe (hot pot dishes), as well as other recipes, and is the first choice for vegetarians and vegans. It is also nice with seafood recipes as there is no fish in the broth that may compete with the ingredients in the final dish.
- Awase dashi is the most popular type of dashi used in Japanese cooking. Combining kombu and katsuobushi (awase means combination), it is used to make clear soups, nimono, noodle soups, and more.
- Iriko dashi, which is made of dried anchovies or sardines, brings a gentle fish flavor (although the aroma is strong) to several dishes including miso soup, noodle soup dishes, rice bowls, nimono, and nikujaga (beef stew).
- Hoshi-shiitake dashi is most frequently used to make nimono and other dishes and is a good choice for vegetarians.
Making Your Own Dashi
It might take extra effort to make dashi, but a good dashi makes your Japanese dishes taste that much better. Since each dashi is made with a different ingredient, each recipe will be slightly changed. Perhaps a good one to start with is kombu dashi. Kombu is dried kelp that has been cut into sheets; you can usually find it in the Asian aisle of the grocery store. For 2 cups of water, you need a 2-inch piece of kombu. Let the kombu warm along with the water on the stove, removing the pan from the heat right as it reaches a boil. (You don’t want to let the mixture boil as the kombu can leave a bitter flavor and create a slick texture.) Remove the kombu from the broth and discard. For more flavor, soak the piece of kombu in water overnight before warming in the water.
Use your homemade dashi as the basis for a miso soup or noodle soup. Once you’ve made kombu dashi, you are ready to try any of the other versions.
Japanese dashi is best used on the day it's made. If you have some leftover dashi, however, keep it in a covered container refrigerated for up to a week or freeze to use within three months.
Dashi Packets and Powder
If the idea of making dashi from scratch is a bit overwhelming, there are two alternatives that are simpler: dashi packets and dashi powder. The packets have a more authentic taste compared to the powder since they are made from the real ingredients that are used to make the type of dashi.
Dashi packets are little pouches that contain the dashi ingredients, similar to a teabag. You simply place the packet in the water, let it boil, and remove and discard the packet when it has released the flavors into the broth. You can find dashi packets online or in large Japanese grocery stores.
Instant dashi powder, available at major grocery stores in the Asian aisle or from online specialty stores, is also a quick way to make dashi stock. Usually, about 1 teaspoon of dashi powder is used for 2 1/2 to 3 cups of water. Follow the package instructions for exact proportions as it can vary by brand.