Learn Japanese Through Cooking Dashi

Want to enrich your appreciation of Japanese culture through learning how to cook and eat its food (Instant Ramen doesn’t count), and learn Japanese at the same time? We are going to accomplish this by teaching you the most important Japanese recipe of all time.

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Dashi (出汁・出し・だし)

What is 出汁?

Let’s just say that Japanese food wouldn’t be Japanese food without 出汁. Without 出汁, Japanese food merely becomes “food in the style of Japan.” Cookbooks tend to translate it as “stock,” but I disagree here. To the western mind, stock conjures up images of bones and vegetables simmering away on the stove top for hours and hours.

出汁, just like many things Japanese, is much simpler and basic, yet extremely complex. If you told me 出汁 translated as the divine waters of the river of heaven (天の川 ・あまのがわ), I would believe you without batting an eyelash. It is the essence of the sea. It is the mystical, life giving blood of Japan.

OK you get it, I love this stuff and it’s important. It’s so important that they actually made a movie about it!

“I know about 出汁,” you think. “It’s that powdered stuff I get at the store.” Your next thought better be “where do I get a samurai sword to commit 腹切 (はらきり),” because the amount of dishonor you bring with that statement is incredible indeed.

In all reality though, many Japanese do use powdered or instant dashi (粉末出汁・ふんまつだし) these days, although I would recommend trying to make your own at least once.

So how do we make it? Only 2 major ingredients!

Konbu (昆布・こんぶ)

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昆布 is a type of giant sea kelp harvested off of northern Hokkaido. It has wide leaves of a deep, deep amber, with a dusting of white powder like you get on your pants after eating a frosted doughnut. The white powder is actually the secret to this little sea leaf.

Now technically you can make 出汁 with just 昆布 by soaking the leaves in cold water for 8 hours and that’s it. Useful for some things but it’s not quite the 出汁 we’re looking for here. We need one more ingredient to make it work.

Katsuo-Bushi (鰹節・かつお節・かつおぶし)

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かつお節 is dried bonito, a kind of skipjack tuna. A hunk of dried bonito resembles a piece of wood. They take that hunk and use something very similar to a carpenter’s plane and shave off flakes of the fish that resemble pencil shavings (this all sounds so appetizing right now doesn’t it)?

What we’re looking for are the flakes. If you want to be specific, these flakes are called either Hana-Katsuo (花かつお・はなかつお) or Kezuri-Bushi (削り節・けずりぶし) but any Japanese market will know what you mean if you simply ask for かつお節.

Seaweed and fish flakes. That’s it.

I know you might be worried about trying to find these ingredients but it is a surprisingly simple task, even if there isn’t a Japanese market nearby. I actually get my 出汁 ingredients from a Korean market near my apartment. Most asian groceries have them. I’ve even seen かつお節 in some Whole Foods stores. If all else fails there’s the internet.

Now that we have the ingredients laid out let’s make some 出汁! The specific recipe laid out below is for Ichiban Dashi (一番だし). This is the clearest, purest form of 出汁 and is used for clear, delicate soups.

What you’ll need:

​● 1 quart (1L) cold water (冷水 ・ れいすい)
​​● 1 ounce (30g) 昆布
​​● 1 ounce (30g) はなかつお

1) Fill a medium sized pot (鍋 ・ なべ) with 1L 冷水 and add 昆布. Slowly, slowly heat (uncovered) until it just reaches the boiling (沸騰・ふっとう) point. This should take between 10-20 minutes. DO NOT BOIL THE 昆布! 昆布 gets very stinky when boiled and we don’t want that in our 出汁. When the surface of the water starts to get shimmery (heavenly river remember?) remove the 昆布 and save (we’re going to use it again for the next recipe).

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2) Bring the water up to 沸騰 over medium-high heat and then add ¼ cup of 冷水. Immediately add the はなかつお. Just drop it in, no mixing (混ぜる・まぜる), no stirring (掻き混ぜる・かきまぜる). When the water begins to 沸騰 again remove the 鍋 from the heat. The はなかつお will start to sink to the bottom.

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3) After all the はなかつお have sunk (about 2 to 5 minutes), pour the 出汁 through a strainer (ストレーナー), cloth optional, to filter out the はなかつお. Save again for next time.

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Should only take about 25 minutes total. You have Anki reviews that take longer than that. You could even be doing Anki reviews while you cook this up.

There you go. You should now have 4 cups of Japanese heaven ready to be used. It really should be used right away. It’ll keep for about 3 or 4 days covered in the fridge or about 2 months frozen but it really looses flavor quickly.

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As is, you can use the 出汁 in any Western recipe you have that calls for vegetable or fish stock, or any recipe that calls for you to cook something in water really (rice, vegetables, etc.). Just replace the water with 出汁 in equal parts. Heck, just take some sliced carrots, snow peas, and broccoli and simmer in the 出汁 with a little salt for a couple minutes. So much better than those frozen vegetables.

The most common thing 出汁 is used for is soup and more particularly Japan’s most famous soup: Miso (味噌汁・みそしる). Assuming you guys are liking this series, next time we’ll talk about the different varieties of 味噌汁, and give you a recipe for two different soups for two different occasions.

Ever made 出汁?

What was your experience with it? What have you used it for?

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Lover of all things edible (except natto of course). Former NOVA teacher, spent 2007 in Japan eating my way from Fukuoka to Tokyo and made the discovery that Hakata ramen = best ramen. Currently spending my days staring at eyes in Chicago at the Illinois College of Optometry.

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Learn Japanese Through Cooking Dashi — 14 Comments

  1. I’ve never made 出汁 myself, but I think I’ll give it a try pretty soon. I’m really looking forward to the next installments of the series!

  2. Yum! Like anything, 出汁 is so much tastier when homemade and fresh. I’ve made some before and used it for 味噌汁 as well as 親子丼, so good! I really need to make some more, especially since I have the ingredients in my kitchen right now…

  3. I’ve made this before using Makiko Itoh’s Recipe from Just Bento, your description is much more colorful,I enjoyed reading it. I would greatly enjoy a continuation of this series. I’ve used it to make tamagoyaki for the kiddos bentos.

    • Thank you for the comment. Maybe we’ll discuss tamagoyaki in a future series, I’ll have to think about it. Makiko Itoh has some great things at Just Betno. My goal with this series is to not just reproduce what every other “recipe blog” is doing but make it fun and educational.

  4. Yes! I made some only last week. In fact I got a friend round and we spent a pleasant day making a full scale Japanese banquet. We got authentic ingredients from the Japan Centre in London. I was particularly pleased that I found the Japanese labels easier to read than the English ones, because my recipe book used all the Japanese names.

    I also developed a new respect for sashimi chefs. It turns out cutting up a bit of raw fish is harder than it might seem.

    • Wow! I’ve never attempted a full banquet, maybe one day. Which recipe book do you use? I’ve never made sashimi – it’s a true art form. I may give an article discussing it, but I wouldn’t dare try and teach how to do it. I’m far from experienced in that area.

      • Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji
        Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques, Yasuo Konishi Nozaki

  5. This is a really cool idea! I really want to see more of this :) Sadly I dont know of any japanese / asian groceries near me, but maybe one day I’ll find out about one, and then I’ll be able to come back and try all the recipes that you do!

  6. Awesome idea for a series. Cooking is a big hobby of mine, so I’m looking forward to more.

    I’ve used 出汁 a couple times, but most recently, I used it to make きつねうどん at my wife’s request, after seeing it in 幸腹グラフィティ.

  7. Loving this series already :D really enjoyed reading the recipe with the Japanese names. Looking forward to more :)

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