Savory on the tongue and oozing with umami, dashi is a versatile Japanese soup stock. It makes up a quintessential ingredient in many traditional Japanese food dishes and is commonly used as a base for noodle soups, simmered dishes, and even savory batters. It's more than just the foundation of a humble bowl of miso soup; keep reading to find out what dashi is made of and how to use it in Japanese cooking!
What is Dashi?
Well, what is dashi? Predominantly made from fish and kelp, dashi or dashijiru is a light broth used as the backbone of many Japanese dishes. Used in Japanese cuisine since the 17th century in Edo period Japan, it's an indispensable ingredient in traditional Japanese cooking. So, is dashi just broth? Aficionados of Japanese cuisine would argue otherwise. Whether for high-class kaiseki cuisine or home-style Japanese dishes, using dashi in Japanese cooking creates that unique richness in classic Japanese dishes. It also adds that essential umami-packed flavor.
What is dashi made from?
What is dashi stock made of? Compared to soup stocks from other styles of cuisine, dashi is generally quick and easy to make. Rather than taking a lot of ingredients and a long time to boil down, typically, dashi only contains one or two dried ingredients and can be prepared in about 20 minutes (however, some traditional recipes call for it to simmer for several hours.) There are many variants of dashi used in Japanese cuisine, depending on the dish. You can make dashi from simple ingredients such as kelp or fish products boiled with water. Strain out the liquid, and you will have a clear broth to use in Japanese cooking!
Dashi and umami: is Dashi MSG?
A lot of people wonder, is dashi MSG? In short, no, dashi is not the same as MSG (aka monosodium glutamate). Dashi is the word for Japanese “soup stock.” However, dashi is closely tied to the phrase “umami”, which means “the fifth taste”. This describes the “fifth flavor” beyond sweet, savory, salty and bitterness. Umami in dashi comes from MSG, which is released from ingredients during the dashi cooking and preparation process. MSG, or umami, was discovered by a Japanese scientist in the early 1900s as he studied what happens to these ingredients when boiled for making dashi. The heat releases these notoriously savory glutamates and other chemicals, and these are also found in other foods high in protein (including meat, tomatoes, and cheese too). Ajinomoto or MSG has been made into a flavor-enhancing product separate from dashi. Read our blog all about umami for the full history and science behind umami and MSG. Also, for the record, dashi and miso are not the same thing.
How to use dashi?
Besides soups or simmered dishes, what is dashi used for? Dashi has multiple uses in Japanese cooking! It’s certainly the key ingredient in miso soup along with miso (fermented soy bean paste). However, its use extends far beyond soup. Different types of dashi create unique types of noodle dishes (like ramen or udon) as well as bubbling hotpots (nabe). It brings out flavors in simmered side dishes like nikujaga (meat and potatoes) or Japanese curry. Dashi is also essential as part of the batter for okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) and Osaka’s famous takoyaki octopus balls. It’s very versatile, and it’s even used in tempura batter and makes donburi rice bowls nice and moist.
Different types of Dashi
There are several types of dashi that all serve different purposes in traditional Japanese cuisine. When making dashi from scratch, using a combination of your first batch of dashi (known as ichiban dashi) you can subsequently create a second round of dashi (niban dashi) where you mix one or more dashi stocks together. So, if it’s just a few ingredients, what is dashi made of? Here are the main varieties you’ll typically find.
Awase dashi is a Japanese soup stock that is made from simmering together a mix of kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). The name translates to “mixed” or “combined” soup stock, and packs an umami hit. Awase dashi is typically used in miso soup, simmered dishes (nimono), soup for noodle dishes (like udon or ramen) or soups for nabe hotpots.
Kombu dashi is a soup stock that is made of just kelp. This type of dashi is vegan so it’s especially versatile. It’s light in flavor and is used in dishes such as oden and mixed Japanese rice (called takikomi-gohan). It can also be used as a hotpot base, like shabu shabu.
Katsuo dashi is made of dried bonito tuna flakes, katsuobushi. Suitable for any kind of fish-based soup or simmered dish, you can usually find it used in miso soup, noodle soups, hot pots, and a range of simmered dishes. You can learn more about katsuobushi that’s produced in Mie in our video!
Made from dried anchovies, niboshi dashi is a classic fish-flavored soup stock. Its intense anchovy scent and flavor work well in ramen dishes and miso soup. Another dashi that's made from dried baby anchovies or sardines, iriko dashi is another similar fish-based soup stock.
Shiitake dashi is made using shiitake mushrooms. This version of dashi is vegan, so it's well suited for vegetarian and vegan dishes, including (but not limited to) noodles, simmered dishes, and even shojin ryori (traditional Buddhist cuisine). Some dashi stocks can be made using vegetables, but they tend to be less potent in flavor without the dried ingredient.
What about instant types of dashi? In modern Japanese cooking, instant dashi is sold as a fine instant powder or dried granules. These can easily dissolve in boiling water instead of simmering down your own dashi. For a quick dashi fix, you can add boiled water to instant dashi and tada! You've got dashi ready on the go. It's a good option for adding some instant umami to your Japanese cooking at home, and it comes in a range of flavors imitating the types of dashi listed above. You can buy instant dashi or packets of ready-made dashi broth from Asian supermarkets if you are looking for a fast umami-packed solution. Hondashi is a brand name for typical instant dashi you can buy in Japan, as opposed to dashi which generally refers to the real stuff made from scratch.
While using real dashi in your Japanese cooking will give that authentic savory taste, you can use several dashi substitutes if you don't have the time or ingredients to make your own. Mentsuyu, or noodle dipping sauce, can be used as a replacement (it features a lot of salty fermented ingredients like soy sauce to give flavor). Alternatively, you can substitute things like shellfish or regular fish. Chicken stock powder can also be used as a substitute for dashi. You can make dashi without bonito flakes, so a combination of kelp or dried mushrooms can be a good interim measure if you have them on hand (or want to make a vegetarian version of a dish).
Health benefits of dashi
Since dashi is such an effective flavor enhancer, when it comes to Japanese cooking you don't need to add too many other unhealthy condiments to improve palatability. Dashi is considered healthy because you don't need to season dishes excessively with salt, fats, or sugar. It also contains a number of vitamins and minerals, particularly from kombu kelp or dried bonito flakes, making it a healthy ingredient used in Japanese food. During the cooking process, amino acids are released into the broth (like umami we told you about earlier), which is helpful for the recovery of muscle damage. Bonito flakes are also said to have health benefits, including properties to boost cognition, lower blood pressure, and improve circulation.
The taste of Japanese cuisine
Dashi is the savory soup that gives Japanese food its signature washoku (Japanese cuisine) flavor! It's a simple soup stock of just a few ingredients, boiled to release that signature umami goodness that makes Japanese food so delicious. Used in Japanese cooking for generations, the different types of dashi give depth of flavor to dishes they are in.