Although I grew-up in Japan, between the ages of 5~14, and ate Japanese school lunches K~4th grade, at home, we ate Iranian food my Mother cooked. The few times my parents were at an event, were the only few times our maid made us Japanese food, children’s favorites, which I will cover some other time.
I did not learn how to cook authentic Japanese food until I was in my twenties. I learned from loving, older Japanese friends, who were more than willing to teach me the culinary culture and its essentials. The very first item they focused my attention on was how important dashi /stock was in making authentic Japanese dishes.
Dashi gives the element of umami うまみ ‘pleasant savory taste’ regarded as the ‘5th element of taste’, referring to sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors that come together and create a well-balanced taste.
(MSG was invented on the concept of umami in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda from the Tokyo Imperial University.) Foods that contain umami are soy sauce, fish sauce, different kinds of stock, miso, mushrooms, tomatoes, certain types of fish, and pork.
There also is the term koku コク, describing a harmony of several ingredients, sweet and salty, encapsulating the umami element, creating a rich, full and hearty flavor. The koku flavor is best used for meat dishes that involve roasting, braising or curing.
There are several ingredients dashi is made from, common ones being bonito-flakes/katsuobushi or kelp/konmbu. Other ingredients are dried sardines/niboshi, shrimps, and shells or vegetables, such as dried shiitake mushrooms. Simply, stock base is soaked in cold water for a few hours -or- depending on base ingredient and use, put in boiling water, boiled for few minutes and strained for broth. As for instant dashi, follow instructions on the package.
Cooking authentic Japanese food has evolved and is now easier than ever with various packaged, prepared, instant, granulated, bottled or already infused broth/sauces. Japan-made products are expensive. Therefore, if cooking periodically to appreciate the cuisine, buying scratch ingredients which come in big packages may not be the economical way to go. Most Japanese home-cooks and I appreciate the comfort of available/accessible instant products which have made cooking not a chore anymore.
In the photo to the right are a few products dashi(s) are made from; kelp, dried bonito flakes and instant granulated broth base. Memmi, a dashi base sauce in the bottle is mainly used for dipping sauces.
(Shhh… initially, I was not too keen on the smell of seafood base or strong broth. I cooked Japanese food, ignoring dashi required. It did work. However, as I developed my taste buds, I did learn to use milder dashi -increased ratio of water to base- which truly added umami to the recipe.)
The very first recipe which comes to mind that uses dashi is none other than miso-shiru / miso soup, history of which goes back 700 years. It is said that the Japanese samurais got well nourished/energized if they had a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup packed with vegetables. Softened miso paste is diluted in hot dashi first, and ingredients are added depending on regional and seasonal recipes, and personal preference. It is a very simple soup and there is no limit to veggies or meats used to make a satisfying soup/meal. Meats should be precooked and vegetables can be blanched (if not fast cooking) before added to the miso diluted dashi. If super quick cooking vegetable are used, it can be added raw. Do not let miso soup to boil. Turn off the heat as soon as boiling indication is seen at the edge of the pot.
Note: There are varieties of miso paste (fermented soy beans, plus other ingredients) which vary in salt content and come in red/aka miso, white/shiro miso, mixed/awase miso, with or without dashi and/or MSG included, organic and non-organic. Read packaging carefully, both for content and miso paste/water ratio.
Miso Soup • Misoshiru • 味噌汁
Recipe by: Fae’s Twist & Tango (fae-magazine.com)
• 1 packet (4g) granulated dashi base, dissolved in 2 cups water in a small saucepan
• 2 Tbsp low sodium white miso in a one-cup-size bowl
• 1 Tbsp wakame, soaked in ¼ cup water for 10 minutes and drained
• 1 small piece of abura’age (fried thin tofu), sliced thinly
• ½ stem spring onion, ultra-thinly sliced
◊ In a small saucepan, bring dissolved dashi to a boil and immediately turn off heat.
◊ Add ladle of boiled stock to bowl with miso and completely dilute until smooth and add back to the saucepan with the dashi .
◊ Add wakame, abura’age to saucepan. On medium-heat, stir the soup and at first indication of boiling, turn off heat. Miso soup should never boil or coagulate in saucepan.
◊ Pour in Japanese soup bowls(or any soup cups) and garnish with half of finely sliced spring onion each.
~ どうぞめしあがれ • Douzo Meshiagare! ~
(A) nameko mushrooms, tofu, mitsuba
(B) potato, wakame, snow-peas
(C) sliced daikon/radish, julienne daikon, sprout stems
(D) pumpkin, green-beans
(E) white part of Napa cabbage, crumbs of tempura
(F) shijimi shells and spring onion
(G) mini mochi(s), tomato, okra
(H) oriental soup bread, yoriudo (?), dried shiso leaves
(I) turnip, abura’age (fried, thin tofu)
(J) bamboo shoots, wakame, kinome leaf
(K) chicken meat, leek, abura’age, daikon, carrots, konnyaku
(L) spinach or green leaves, fried-thick-tofu
So, what’s cooking in your kitchen?