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Friday, June 22, 2012

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Taking stock: Varieties of niboshi sardines and katsuobushi bonito flakes are among the basic ingredients of dashi, a kind of stock used in Japanese cuisine to enhance the umami characteristics. Dashi is much easier to prepare at home than Western soup stocks, so why not have a go? MAKIKO ITOH


There's no excuse not to perfect your dashi

Special to The Japan Times

There are two basic skills you should master if you want to make authentic Japanese dishes at home. One is how to properly prepare and cook plain steamed rice — a task made easy these days with sophisticated electronic rice cookers. The other is how to make top-notch, flavorful dashi.

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Shave the day: Katsuobushi flakes (left) are available in the shops, but for a traditional twist you can use a hand grater. Below: Ma-konbu is regarded as top quality konbu seaweed.
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Dashi is the foundation of all savory Japanese cooking. It is often described as Japanese soup stock, but it's used for much more than just soup — to stew meat, fish or vegetables, in sauces and more, and to enhance the umami or "savoriness."

The key chemical factors of dashi are glutamic acid (glutamate) and inosinic acid. In 1908, professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University (now University of Tokyo) successfully isolated glutamic acid from one of the main ingredients in dashi, konbu seaweed, and patented it as monosodium glutamate or MSG.

In 1909, MSG was commercialized as Ajinomoto, which means "foundation of flavor." The little white crystals became so popular that the Ajinomoto company grew into a conglomerate that is still thriving. It's a little hard to envision now, but MSG used to be considered a highly desirable item. I still remember my parents getting fancy gilt boxes of Ajinomoto as gifts well into the 1980s.

While many Japanese cooks still use Ajinomoto, which is now made from soy beans rather than konbu, the trend these days is to avoid pure MSG due to its rather harsh taste, plus a small number of people are allergic to concentrated glutamates. Traditionally made dashi is much more complex than MSG, with a more rounded, subtle flavor.

Modern instant dashi granules seek to mimic the complexity of real dashi. It's really easy to rely on dashi granules of course, and I have to say that some of them aren't too bad.

But while it makes total sense for a busy home cook to use instant or canned stock and skip the tedious task of making Western or Chinese soup stocks from scratch, there's little excuse to not make your own dashi. All the ingredients are available in easy-to-store dried form, and it's quick to prepare. The superior taste of real dashi is well worth that little extra effort, especially for dishes where it's the star.

The main dried ingredients used to make dashi are konbu, a thick leathery seaweed native to Japan's shores; grated or shaved katsuobushi, dried bonito fish; niboshi, whole dried iwashi or sardines; and hoshi shiitake, dried shiitake mushrooms.

Which of these are used and in what combination has traditionally varied from region to region. In the Kansai area and the refined cuisine of the Imperial court, the subtle flavor of konbu dashi was favored, while in the Kanto-Tokyo region dashi rich in katsuobushi flavor has been popular since the Edo Period (1603-1867).

But how to make it? Let's start with the most widely used dashi: konbu and katsuobushi (commonly called konbu dashi). To make 4 to 5 cups, you'll need a piece of konbu about 10 to 15 cm long, and 1 cup of loosely packed katsuobushi. Carefully wipe away any sand or dirt on the surface of the konbu with a moistened and wrung-out kitchen towel, but keep the white powdery substance — that contains lots of flavor. Soak it in 4-5 cups of cold water for 30 minutes to an hour. Heat the water; take out the konbu just before it comes to a boil. Throw in the katsuobushi as it comes to a boil and immediately turn off the heat. Wait a few minutes until the katsuobushi has sunk down, then strain the liquid through a fine-meshed sieve or cheesecloth.

To make subtly flavored konbu-only dashi (great for vegetarians), use the best konbu you can afford for maximum flavor. (Ma-konbu from Hokkaido, especially the town of Rishiri, is regarded as top dog.) You'll need as much konbu as will fit into the container you'll be using (a 30 cm length fits into a 1 liter water pitcher I have). Wipe off any sand from the surface, but not the white powdery substance. To extract the most flavor, make several cuts along the konbu lengthwise. Put the konbu in a lidded container of your choice, and cover completely with water. Leave in the refrigerator overnight, then heat and use the dashi as needed. It keeps in the refrigerator for about a week.

Shiitake dashi is also made by soaking the dried mushrooms in cold water to cover. The reconstituted shiitake can be used in cooking, of course, and the soaking liquid as a dashi with a distinctive taste.

Niboshi dashi may be the simplest and most economical to make; it is also a nice homey base for everyday miso soup. Put 4 to 5 niboshi in a pan with 4 cups of cold water and let soak for at least 30 minutes. Bring to a boil and remove the niboshi. Some people like to leave the niboshi in and eat them — they're a great source of calcium.

Don't throw away the konbu or katsuobushi after making dashi from it: You can reuse them to make niban (No. 2) dashi; this will be less flavorful but is fine for stewing vegetables or oden. I keep the used bits of konbu and katsuobushi tied up in a coffee filter or in a dashi "tea bag" (available at supermarkets and ¥100 shops) in the freezer, where they keep for about a month. To reuse these ingredients, put a frozen lump or two into water, or whatever other liquids the recipe calls for, and slowly bring to a boil. You may want to add a couple of niboshi, or even a little bit of instant dashi, to augment the umami.

Premade dashi can also be frozen successfully for up to a month. Which is just as well — because a Japanese kitchen without dashi is not a Japanese kitchen at all.

Makiko Itoh is the author of "The Just Bento Cookbook" (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

Recipe: Cold noodles in mentsuyu sauce

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This is the season for refreshing cold noodles with mentsuyu dipping sauce. You can buy bottled mentsuyu, but homemade is a lot better. Note that this is a concentrate so no water is used to make it, but it's made in the same way as a dashi that uses water. The recipe makes 500 ml of mentsuyu, enough for several meals. Don't skimp on making the condiments; they make all the difference. The current favorite in our house is to add an umeboshi (pickled plum) to the sauce, which imparts a refreshing sourness.

Serves 4

For the mentsuyu:

Konbu seaweed — 1 10-cm piece

Katsuobushi (dried bonito fish) — 30 grams (about 1 cup)

Dark soy sauce — 200 ml

Mirin — 200 ml

Cooking sake — 100 ml

For the noodles:

Dried Japanese noodles such as sōmen, hiyamugi, udon or soba — 300 to 400 grams

Water or cold dashi to dilute the mentsuyu — to taste

2 or more of the following condiments:

Asatsuki (green onions), finely chopped

Myōga, thinly sliced

Green shiso (perilla) leaves, shredded

Green shiso buds

Fresh ginger, grated

Wasabi, grated

Toasted sesame seeds, whole or ground

Shichimi tōgarashi (seven-flavor Japanese pepper)


To make the mentsuyu:

Wipe the surface of the konbu with a wrung-out kitchen towel. Combine the liquids in a pan and add the konbu. Leave to soak for about 30 minutes. Bring to a boil; just before it boils, take out the konbu. Add the katsuobushi and turn off the heat immediately. Leave to cool, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Store in a closed container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several weeks. (If you prefer it less sweet, reduce the mirin to 150 ml. If you like it even sweeter, add 2-3 tablespoons of sugar.)

For the cold noodles: Boil a large pot of water (there's no need to salt it). Add the noodles and cook until a strand taken out is tender (2-3 minutes for sōmen, 4-5 minutes for hiyamugi, 7-10 minutes for soba and udon). Stir occasionally with long cooking chopsticks to keep the strands from sticking to each other or the pot. If the water threatens to boil over while you're cooking, add a bit of cold water.

Drain the noodles, and rinse under cold running water while gently swishing the noodles around with your hands until any hint of stickiness or flouriness on the surface is gone. Drain well and arrange on a shallow zaru or seiro (bamboo or wood basket) or in a bowl. Dilute the mentsuyu concentrate with water — or better yet with cold dashi — at a 1:1 ratio or to taste, and half fill small bowls with the sauce for dipping. Serve with condiments of your choice.

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