When these days the weather starts to get colder, nothing is as wonderful as having nabe (Japansese hot pot), or a bowl of soba noodles after a long chilling day. Those dishes are not only warm; they are also rich in term of flavor that could ease your stomach and refresh your mind. The secret behind those dishes is dashi, which is Japanese kind of stock that became the main component of many Japanese cuisines.
Stock is the basic preparation that is available in any cuisine around the world. Made in the form of flavored liquid, it is necessary for many different dishes, especially soups and sauces. Different countries have different kinds of stocks depending on their available ingredients. The traditional way of making stock is simmering various ingredients in water such as meat, bones, savory vegetables and herbs. Japanese stock, as mentioned above, is called dashi. Dashi is different from the Western stocks according to the way it is made. While Western stocks often take hours of simmering the ingredients to extract the flavor from them, dashi is cooked in a relatively simple way like steeping because the ingredients are already well executed and highly flavorful.
There are several different kinds of dashi but the most common ones are kombu dashi, katsuobushi dashi, niboshi dashi and shiitake dashi. Kombu dashi is made by soaking kelp in water. Katsuobushi dashi is made from dried bonito flakes. Niboshi dashi stock is made by pinching off the heads and entrails of small dried sardines, to prevent bitterness, and soaking the rest in water. Lastly, shiitake dashi is cooked from dried shiitake mushrooms. The dashi does not require seasoning like soy sauce because the ingredients contain in themselves the umami, a term to determine the fifth flavor. Umami can be translated as “pleasant savory taste”. It has the root from Japan; the term was identified in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda from umai (うまい) “delicious” and mi (味) “taste” attributed to human taste receptors responding to glutamic acid. These days we often find instant or liquid instant dashi in the supermarket that were enhanced by chemical elements to have less subtle flavor. However, the homemade dashi still has its strong position. Each soba shop has its own recipe to combine 3 or 4 types of umami to form their unique dashi taste. Another interesting fact about dashi is that the ingredient could be reused. Leftover katsuobushi can make a stronger dashi that called niban, or secondary dashi. Dried shiitakes used to make shiitake stock can be sliced and added to another dish.
Some people say that dashi in Japan is as important as olive oil in Mediterranean food. It is available in several types of dish, from soups to salad dressing. Dashi shows the harmony between complexity and simplicity: complex ingredients execution along with simple cooking technique; complex flavors in simple dishes. Dashi also proves the importance of savory taste in Japanese cuisine. If food is considered an element of one culture, dashi can be defined as a distinctive feature of Japanese culture.