Dashi is the foundation of many traditional Japanese foods from soups to dipping sauces. Although there are variations of dashi, it basically is a clear seaweed and/or fish stock. Like most fish stocks, the main ingredients are fish heads and bones. In ancient Japan, any type of fish would do. But today, due to the increased pace of life and convenience of manufactured products, most Japanese cooks today resort to using packaged shavings of dried skipjack bonito fish (katsuobushi flakes), instant granules called hon-dashi or dashi-no-moto as well as liquid concentrates.
Chefs like to add a piece dashi no konbu (or kelp) for added umami (savory) flavor. Occasionally, if the dish calls for more seafood flavor, dried shrimps or dried baby sardines are simmered in the dashi before straining. The use of such results in a cloudier stock but the deeper flavor is worth it. Kelp or katsuobushi dashi has a very light essence that the unitiated may mistake for blandness.
When preparing your own dashi, do not add soy sauce or added seasonings. Keep the dashi pure in flavor and then use it as an ingredient in your recipe, which then calls for added seasonings. If you intend to drink it as a broth, then add light seasonings according to your taste. I add some ajinomoto, and a pinch of salt.
As you strain the dashi, catch the simmered shavings in a cheesecloth but do not discard them. The first broth made is considered Ichi-ban Dashi or first stock. Repeat the process of dashi-making using these wet shavings and you’ll get Niban Dashi or second stock. It was a way to make the most of the fish during lean times, but now is appreciated for its lighter qualities to be used in other recipes.
Dashi Made From Katsuobushi Flakes and Konbu
2 cups katsuobushi flakes (dried bonito shavings)
1 strip of konbu kelp (about 7 inches long)*
1 quart of water
1/4 cup dried shrimps, optional**
Prepare the konbu by wiping off the white powdery film with a clean cloth. Do not wash the konbu in water. Cut the konbu into small pieces to fit a large pot. Add the water and soak the konbu for one hour. Add the dried shrimps, if using. Then over low heat, bring this to a boil. Pour in the katsuobushi flakes and turn off the heat. Allow this mixture to sit for 15 minutes. The flakes should settle to the bottom of the pot. Strain using a fine cheesecloth. Do not discard the shavings. Repeat this process using the wet shavings for a good Niban dashi. Use dashi as desired.
*The konbu can be omitted, but it imparts a wonderful umami flavor to what is a very delicately flavored stock.
**I adore the flavor that the dried shrimps lend to dashi! But if I really need a clear, simple dashi, I leave them out.
Dashi-no-moto or Hon Dashi Granules or Liquid Concentrate
You simply follow the directions on the package or concentrate bottle but you can adjust the measurements according to your personal tastes.
Konbu Dashi (Kelp Stock)
Some recipes are best made with a light seaweed flavor. Vegetarians, as many Buddhists are, also prepare konbu dashi because it does not use any fish or animal parts. It is very easy to prepare.
1 quart of water
1 large strip (7 inches of konbu kelp)
Using a clean cloth, wipe off the white powdery film on the kelp. Do not rinse the kelp or good nutrients will be wasted. Pour water into a large cooking pot. Cut the konbu into smaller strips and soak them in this water for about one hour. Over low heat, bring the pot to a slow simmer. Remove from heat. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes. Remove konbu strips and use dashi as needed.
Dashi Made From Fish Heads and Bones
Dashi made from fish heads requires more effort and patience and still yet, it may be difficult to achieve a clear broth. But the flavor is deep and rich and if you can acquire fish heads inexpensively, it might be worth it.
2 quarts water
fish heads, any type but 2 large or 4 small
1 strip konbu kelp (about 10 inches)
Prepare the fish heads by carefully cutting around and removing the gills. Do not use the gills and avoid cutting into them or they will release bitterness into your stock. Cut the heads in half and rinse them under running water. Some say that flavorful juices reside in the heads but there are also some undesirables that will cloud the stock. If using fish bones, carefully crack the spines and rinse out any spinal cord blood. Do not use the skin of the fish as it is too oily, depending on the species of fish.
Place the clean fish bones and heads into the pot filled with water. Be sure that the water level just covers the fish. Add more water, if necessary. Cut the konbu into strips and add them to the water. Bring the pot to a simmer, but not a boil, over low heat. Skim off any accumulating foam on the surface. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Do not allow this to boil or the stock will become cloudy. Cool slightly and strain through a fine cheesecloth. Discard bones. Use dashi as needed.