Friday, March 28, 2008

Dashi -- the base of Japanese cuisine

Making stocks is like flossing. It's something everyone should do on a regular basis, it's just that not everyone does. If you make most of your stocks from scratch, I am in awe of your discipline. I usually just reach for a box or a can in my pantry whenever a recipe calls for beef or chicken stock. Maybe that's why I find taking professional cooking classes as inspiring as going to the dentist. They always start with a somber lecture on "thou shalt make stock," and I always feel the proper amount of remorse for my laziness. But then I get back into the kitchen, and something tells me that life goes on with or without home-made stock. Last night's meat class was empirical evidence in support of my theory. You should have seen the speed with which my students devoured a NY strip with a red wine reduction (made out of store bought stock and 2 buck chuck, by the way). What really mattered was that the steak was prime (meaning well-marbled), dry-aged (meaning tender), cooked to prefect medium-rare, and seasoned generously with salt and freshly ground pepper. The rest, if you ask me, is trifles.

The only time I take stocks a bit more seriously is when I make clear soups. Hearty of chunky soups are very forgiving and will hide the imperfections of a store bought stock, but clear soups are a totally different story. They are all about the broth, and if it's not good enough, the soup is not worth eating.

My little discovery this weekend was that if you take a virtual trip to Japan, it's possible to make a perfect home-made stock in minutes! This stock is called dashi, and it's the foundation of Japanese cooking. It smells like the sea with smoky undertones and makes fantastic clear soups. While you can find it in powder, the real thing has only 2 ingredients (kombu and bonito flakes) and takes literally 5 minutes. I am not exaggerating. This is not like Rachel Ray's 20 minute meal that takes 45 minutes in real life (when you don't have all your veggies pre-washed and pre-chopped). Dashi is indeed a 5 minute undertaking even for someone whose only kitchen skill is knowing how to boil water.

Kombu? Bonito flakes? I know what you are thinking: "What on earth is that and where am I supposed to get it?" Kombu (a.k.a. dried kelp) is a sea vegetable. In the picture below, it's the slightly wavy black sheet. Bonito flakes are tissue thin shavings of dried bonito, a species of small tuna. In the picture, they are the pink fluffy things that look like packaging material. You can buy both at most Whole Foods markets or at an Asian grocery store.

Kombu does not lend itself nicely to cup measurements since it looks like big flat dried up leaves. To figure out how much to use, look at the package. If your package has 60 grams (2 oz) of kelp, use roughly half of it.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, May 2000

For 6 cups dashi

6 cups water
30 grams (1 oz) kombu (dried kelp)
10 g bonito flakes (about 1 cup)
  1. If possible let kombu sit in cold water for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day before making dashi.  If you don't have time, start at step 2.
  2. In a medium pot, bring the water and kombu to just under a boil (180F), you'll see little bubble form on the bottom of the pot, and barely start to break the surface of water at the edges.  Take the pot off heat.
  3. Add bonito flakes to the pot and stir to get them moistened.
  4. Wait 3 minutes.
  5. Strain the liquid into a bowl through a sieve or colander lined with dampened paper towel.
Done! See -- I told you it was easy.

What can you do with dashi? The possibilities are endless. I like to simmer it with some ginger, season it with Japanese soy sauce, Mirin (sweet rice wine), and a squirt of lemon, then pour over a bowl of udon or soba noodles. Add some thinly sliced scallions, sugar snapped peas, and shitake mushrooms and you have a lovely soup. To make it into a meal, just plop in a piece of delicate fish seared on the skin side (or whatever side you want if the fish doesn't have the skin) right into a bowl of soup. In 3-5 minutes, the soup will cook the other side of the fish to medium-rare making it custardy soft. Not all fish taste good or are safe to eat undercooked, but King or Atlantic salmon are very yummy and safe prepared this way.

To cook salmon, dry it well on paper towels. Sear it in a very hot, non-stick skillet, skin side down for 2 minutes. Drain on paper towel to remove access fat and keep it crispy. Take the pan off heat, add 1 Tbsp soy sauce and 1 Tbsp Mirin (for two pieces of salmon, 6oz each), and put the pan on medium heat. Return the salmon to the pan skin side down and wait for the glaze to caramelize, 30-60 seconds. Watch it very closely! After the first 15 seconds, check it every 5 seconds. This sauce can go from beautiful caramel to black in a flash. Place the salmon in the bowl of soup skin side up being careful not to get the skin wet.


Anonymous said...

I love dashi and always use the powder. I had no idea it was so easy to make from scratch and probably become a convert. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Oh this is so beautiful! I'm going to get some kombu and bonito flakes next time I'm in Whole Foods or Chinatown. Your blog is always full of good ideas that make me want to drop everything else I'm doing.

Anonymous said...

This is great! Thanks for the informative (not to mention encouraging -- I never would have considered making my own dashi until now) post!

I have a few questions though, just out of plain old curiosity:

1. What happens if you leave the kombu and/or the dashi in?

2. Do people vary the proportions (of kelp to bonito) according to preference, or this ratio pretty firm?

Again, many thanks!

Helen said...

Hi Birder,

Unfortunately, I don't know the answers to your questions. I am much more of a French / Italian cook than a Japanese cook and this is only my second time making dashi. Maybe one of the other readers knows the answer?


Anonymous said...

I love this post! I've tried many times to make stock. It always comes out something less than I'd hoped. I just don't have the head for it . . . yet. But this? Wow, this is screw up proof!

I think I love you.

Katerina said...

I love dashi too. I use it to make miso soup all the time. When I do that I actually take the kombu out and then add it back in at the last minute. Otherwise it seems to disintegrate.

And I also do vary the ratios a bit according to my mood.

Anonymous said...

Second recipe I have tried from these here parts and...massive success yet again.

I just added a quick comment to your yogurt chicken recipe as that was my first try at a Beyond Salmon recipe and it was great, (the recipe AND my try).

This recipe came through with ease and lots of flavor. I encourage everyone to give it a shot. A quick trip to your local "asian" market and a few minutes in the kitchen is all this lovely dish requires. Even my little 2 and a half year old epicure loved the dashi.

Helen said...

Hi Gary,

So glad you find my recipes useful :) It's wonderful that you have a 2 year old who is such a gourmet!


Anonymous said...

It drives me crazy that in the majority of Japanese restaurants here in NY, they just use konbu and water as a base for miso. No bonito flakes, so that vegetarians and omnivores alike can be accommodated. It's infuriating. A whole layer of flavour gone.

Your salmon looks seared to absolute perfection. Gaw-geous.