Many cuisines have their own go-to stock types. Chicken stock has a regular place on American recipe ingredient lists, for example. Japanese cuisine has dashi, its own stock that serves as the foundation of many dishes such as miso soup, dipping sauce, and nimono (simmered dishes). There are different kinds of dashi stock, each with its own specific culinary use, but they are united in their ability to contribute umami (the fifth taste) to a dish.
Most Common Use: soups, ramen, udon dishes
Distinctive flavor: umami
Varieties: kombu, awase, iriki, niboshi, hoshi-shiitake
What Is Dashi?
Put simply, dashi broth is a family of stocks comprised of fusions of umami-rich foods such as bonito fish flakes, dried kombu (sea kelp), dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried whole sardines. It is the backbone of Japanese cuisine, and the liquid base in miso soup, nabe (hot pot dishes), and udon and ramen noodle dishes.
Preparing dashi is typically a labor of love as it takes some time. The ingredients typically need to be soaked and/or otherwise reconstituted from a dried state to extract maximum benefits. However, the process is not hard, and it's not any more time consuming than making your own chicken stock. Most importantly, it creates a base layer of flavor from which the finished dishes will benefit.
There are several popular types of dashi. The one you use will be determined by the flavor you want to impart in the dish, the type of dish, and the other ingredients that are included.
Kombu dashi is made from dried kelp, 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 because it's made from dried seaweed.
Katsuo dashi is made from katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) and is used for soups, ramen, and so forth. It works well with almost any Japanese dish.
Awase dashi is the most popular type 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 is made of dried anchovies or sardines (called niboshi), and it 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. Sometimes shiitake dashi is combined with kombu.
How to Cook With Dashi
Other than soups, stews, and noodle dishes, you can use dashi the way you would use any stock. Sometimes it's whisked together with flour for dishes such as okonomiyaki, savory Japanese pancakes.
Typically, the flavor profile of a dish will dictate the type of dashi your recipe calls for. The proportion of ingredients can vary a bit depending on preference.
What Does It Taste Like?
All types of dashi impart a rich, savory taste, thanks to the naturally occurring glutamic acid in the dried ingredients the dashi stock requires. Each one has subtle taste differences.
It might take extra effort to make dashi, because you need to bring the ingredients to a near boil and then strain them out, but a good one makes your Japanese dishes taste that much better. In a pinch, you could use a vegetable or fish stock perhaps, but purists would say there is no substitute for dashi.
Where to Buy Dashi
You can typically buy the ingredients for dashi in a well-stocked large grocery store, an Asian grocer, or online. Kombu comes in sheets, and bonito flakes are often bagged.
To make dashi, warm a 2-inch piece of kombu in 2 cups of water, and remove the pan from the heat just as it reaches a boil. (You don’t want to let the mixture boil as kombu can leave a bitter flavor and create a slick texture.) Remove the kombu from the broth and discard, or reuse in a second batch. For extra flavor and to soften it, soak the piece of kombu in water overnight before warming it—this also enables you to reuse the kombu by adding it to whatever you're cooking.
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 used to make that particular dashi.
Dashi packets contain dried ingredients, similar to a tea bag. Add the packet to water, let it boil, 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 the 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. When in doubt, taste before adding more powder.
If powders and packets feel like cheating, don't stress about it—these methods are not uncommon in Japanese households.
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.