I don't know if I've ever mentioned my dashi recipe before, but I've gotten many compliments on it from Japanese people so I figure I ought to share it.

Dashi is the broth used in a large number Japanese soups and sauces. It can be made from a variety of different ingredients, but the two most common in a typical dashi recipe are konbu and katsuobushi. Today most Japanese housewives prepare dashi with packets of powdered 'hondashi', usually the Ajinomoto brand, which is made from katsuobushi and konbu extract, salt, MSG, and preservatives. It doesn't compare to the real thing presented here.

Konbu is a type of kelp, which in Alaska we call 'ribbon kelp', also sometimes known as 'giant kelp'. It's dried and can be found in most Asian food stores in small and large packages. Konbu is usually folded into strips but is also sometimes sold in larger sheets. In either case, it has a light dusting of whitish salty powder on the surface. This is a mixture of sea salt and various minerals and chemical compounds from the kelp. Some people advise washing this off before use but since it contains a concentrated form of what leaches out of the kelp anyway, I think it's best retained.

A side note is that this salty powder actually contains MSG. Bet you didn't know that last time you had miso soup! The discovery of MSG was, if I recall correctly, by a Japanese man in the 1920s who was analyzing konbu to uncover why it was tasty. Turns out that this kelp naturally produces a small amount of MSG which then leaches into dashi during boiling. The amount is much less than used in bad Chinese restaurants or Doritos chips, so you may relax and fear no headache if you're sensitive. The man went on to found the Ajinomoto ("source of flavor") corporation which sells hondashi and MSG salt among other things.

The best Japanese konbu purportedly comes from the northernmost reaches of Hokkaido, around the Nemuro area. Due to increasing water pollution, konbu from Honshu and further south is no longer safe to eat, or else has an unpleasant flavor. Large amounts are exported from South Korea to both Japan and elsewhere. In Alaska it can be found growing in abundance along the Southcentral coast and Southeast Alaska in sheltered bays with rocky bottoms. I have tried both Nemuro konbu and Southeast Alaska konbu and I feel that the Alaska version is far better, but it is unfortunately not commercially marketed. The konbu from Korea is passable and is what I use when out of Alaska konbu. It should be stored in an airtight container to prevent mold.

Katsuobushi is basically fish flakes, small flakes of smoked and dried bonito, and is easily found in Asian food stores in both small packets and large sacks. It looks somewhat like the cedar shavings used for hamster and gerbil cages, but smells strongly fishy. Buy the large sack rather than the teensy packets because it keeps forever in an airtight container and is much more cost effective. In the old days people kept chunks of katsuobushi at home and shaved them when necessary with the use of a kitchen tool modeled after the Japanese wood plane. This device had a sharp plane blade on the top and a box underneath to collect the shavings. Such effort involved in cooking has long since been sacrificed to modern technological convenience.

Making dashi from scratch is not terribly difficult, and when stored properly can be kept for many weeks without spoilage. Usually large batches are prepared, reusing the ingredients multiple times to produce different concentrations or simply large mixed quantities. Often two different forms are made, ichiban and niban dashi, the former a clearer, weaker broth for use with more delicate flavorings, and the latter a stronger, cloudier broth for everyday foods like miso soup.

Below is my recipe for dashi. It's not some fancy kuden or anything, just what I've adapted from various recipes I've seen or been given over the years.

Ichiban dashi:
2 quarts filtered or distilled water
4 to 6 pieces of konbu
1 large fistful katsuobushi flakes (2 for small fists)
2 splashes (approx tablespoons) sake
1 to 2 splashes tamari

Fill a 3 quart pot with the water. Add konbu. Bring the water and konbu to a boil over medium heat, about 10 to 20 minutes. When the water is boiling, remove the konbu. (Use ryouribashi long cooking chopsticks, or a strainer spoon for this.) Save the konbu for later. Add the katsuobushi, which will kill the boil. Add the tamari and sake. The tamari doesn't do much for the flavor because there's so little, but it does impart a more golden color. The sake boils off rapidly but the alcohol helps extract the flavor from the katsuobushi.

Once the broth develops foam on the top remove from heat, stir to settle the foam, and strain. To strain I usually use a piece of clean cotton cloth cut from a clean white undershirt. Wet this and line a strainer with it, then pour the broth through this into another container to cool.

The strainer cloth must be a very tight weave because the katsuobushi turns into a sort of pasty glob when removed from the hot water. Cheesecloth is too coarsely woven to remove the fine bits of katsuobushi flakes, and will net you a miso soup with icky globs of fish goo in it. Old undershirts have the perfect fine weave and light weight for this purpose.

Niban dashi:
2 quarts filtered or distilled water
leftover konbu and katsuobushi
another fistful of fresh katsuobushi
a few more pieces of konbu
2 or 3 splashes of tamari and of sake

Reuse the previous 3 quart pot. Pour the water into the pot and at the same time use it to wash the old katsuobushi from the straining cloth. Swirl the cloth in the water until it's mostly clean and then wash it in a sink with hot water, but no soap (which will leave behind an unpleasant flavor). Add the old konbu and the new katsuobushi, and the sake and tamari. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat for 10 to 30 minutes. The longer it cooks the stronger and cloudier it will become. Strain as before. Squeeze as much as you can out of the katsuobushi in the straining cloth (wear rubber gloves here because it's hot!). Discard the goop and wash out. You can use a very small amount of soap (one drop of hand soap) to clean out the cloth, but rinse well.

Store the two dashi in watertight containers. Before using the containers clean them well and rinse them out with boiling water to kill any opportunistic microorganisms. If using plastic let the dashi cool before pouring it in the container, but if using glass (which is preferable) simply pour in hot. Store in a refrigerator. Dashi may also be frozen as ice cubes for long term storage.

The difference between the two qualities of dashi may not matter to you, particularly if you aren't fussy about your miso soup or kansai style (clear) udon. In that case you can combine the two, or simply prepare twice the amount of niban dashi.

Other things which can be added for flavor are dried (or even fresh) shiitake mushrooms, wakame seaweed, a teaspoon of sesame oil (this will separate when stored), sansho, shiso leaf, grated ginger and juice, a pinch of chopped garlic, or hard smoked salmon. Let your imagination run wild, but just remember you're making stock and not soup. Also, don't use any sort of meat other than fish, because you will end up with that type of stock instead of fishy dashi.

Note that if you or your family don't like the smell of low tide you'll be sorely disappointed by the smell of cooking dashi. I love the smell as it reminds me of Southeast Alaska with its rocky beaches covered with kelp, seaweed, and mussels.

To make miso soup, heat an appropriate amount of dashi and toss in a two-finger scoop of miso (either shiro- or akamiso). Add some soaked wakame or sliced naganegi or whatnot, some chunks of tofu, and stir and serve. This takes about five minutes and is excellent fast food.

In a later post I'll add my recipe for tsukejiru, the noodle dipping broth used for zarusoba.