If you want to cut to the heart of Japanese cuisine, drop your ultra-sharp knife and pick up a ladle. The Japanese chef’s most essential, loyal assistant is called dashi.
In English, it’s sometimes referred to as dashi stock or dashi broth. Whatever you call it, it’s the very essence of delicious. Those who have made their share of Western soups and sauces are fairly expert at chopping onions and dicing garlic. When these two simple ingredients hiss in a pan of hot oil or rich, bubbly butter, they release the aroma that sets bellies a-rumbling.
In Japan, onions and garlic exist, of course, but they are not the foundation upon which a meal is built. Good news for at-home chefs ready to graduate from California rolls: dashi, a base ingredient in nearly all savory Japanese meals, is simplicity itself. Instant dashi powder is easy to find and even easier to use. And unlike chicken broth, it takes up very little space in the kitchen! Still wondering exactly what is dashi? We’ve got answers:
What is Dashi?
Dashi is a broth generally made using three ingredients: dried kombu (a type of thick, broad-leaved kelp), soft flakes shaved from dried bonito (a type of fish), and water. There are other earthier variations of dashi made with shiitake, or louder and more pungent types that call for sardines. Like its western counterparts, dashi broth is a yellow, cloudy liquid. Like the bone marrow in chicken stock, dashi is packed with umami.
For the uninitiated, umami is the fifth basic taste that roughly translates to “savory.” Fans of Japanese television have likely heard the exclamation “UMA!” when a host likes what they’re eating. This is classic Osakan shorthand slang: umai is delicious. Uma! Is what you say to surprise your Japanese friends over dinner. Without umami, food isn’t umai. So, when someone asks, “what is dashi?” there’s the dashi stock answer (pun intended), and then there’s the deep truth—dashi is liquid umami gold.
A quick aside. You may have noticed us using the terms “dashi stock” and “dashi broth” interchangeably. Technically, all stock requires bones, and broth does not. Dashi stock (aka dashi broth) is a bit complicated. Usually it contains bones from fish, but those bones are still inside said fish. Unlike mammal or bird bones, which give soup stock a thicker, richer texture and flavor than that of broth, the fish in dashi doesn’t need bones to impart a strong umami kick.
How to Make Your Own Traditional Dashi
Unlike soup stocks that require hoarded veggie scraps and spent chicken bones, dashi is not hard to make the traditional way. Kombu and bonito are dry, preserved foods that last in the fridge (or cabinet) for months. Put your ingredients together in a pot of water, apply heat, wait, and strain. To reduce bitterness, don’t boil your kombu. Remove bonito from the recipe, and you have vegan dashi broth.
While there are mountaintop monasteries that will serve you some of the most delicious, complicated vegetarian meals available on planet Earth, Japanese food is surprisingly unfriendly to those avoiding animal products. Because it is a clear stock, dashi is the invisible hero of many dishes, even simmered vegetables! It’s not impossible to avoid dashi in Japanese food, but strict vegetarian travellers, consider yourselves warned.
Enter: Instant Dashi Powder
For all this talk of the simplicity and power of dashi broth, we actually recommend going the instant dashi route. You can make “authentic” Japanese food without making your dashi from scratch. As in many food traditions, time-consuming homemade dashi has a popular, instant alternative: dashi powder. Think of instant dashi powder as a bullion cube. Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at Tokyo University, isolated the amino acid responsible for umami in the early 1900s. This initial discovery quickly lead to Ikeda co-founding the multinational food company Ajinomoto, or “essence of taste.” Ajinomoto is still the lead producer of your everyday instand dashi powder, available at Bokksu Grocery. For foodies interested in a dashi taste test or someone looking for the perfect gift for their favorite Japanese at-home chef, Bokksu also has some beautiful dashi products, e.g. this sommelier-created set of five dashi powders.
What Dashi Powder Can Do For You
Whether you use the everyday standby or spring for a more artisanal variety, all dashi stock granules are excellent kitchen experimentation. Because dashi powder is a dry good that can be measured in teaspoons, cooks can easily adjust quantity and concentration in their food. Instead of steaming broccoli or boiling pasta in water, stir in some dashi powder to make it pop! If your dashi powder is fine enough, sprinkle it over your popcorn or potato chips. Dashi powder is a superpower ingredient for healthier food, too. As bottled umami, it creates an instant “crave-it” effect that could otherwise require high salt content. Try it out as a dry condiment or work it into a paste you can slowly add to taste. When asked what your secret ingredient is, there’s no need to answer. Dashi is clear when added to your meal and a barely-noticeable jar on the shelf. Dashi is not here to announce itself: it’s here to make everything else taste good.
Dashi is such an important staple that it's even in vending machines, like in this TikTok below!