Dashi and Washoku
Every typical Japanese dish almost always includes dashi. So it’s no exaggeration to say that dashi is the element upon which the taste of Japanese cuisine is based. In other words, dashi is the foundation of washoku.
There are many ways to make dashi. You can use a variety of ingredients, such as kombu (a type of kelp found mainly in Japan), katsuobushi (dried shavings of skipjack tuna or bonito flakes), niboshi (dried sardines), shiitake mushrooms, the leftovers of filleted fish, etc. You can boil the ingredients, or leave them to soak in water for a few days.
The “first” dashi (made from the first infusion of ingredients) tastes significantly different from the “second” dashi (made by re-infusing ingredients used to make the first dashi). First and second dashi are used for different kinds of dishes. So the character of each washoku dish depends on the type of dashi used.
Dashi’s taste components
What does dashi taste like, and why?
Dashi has an umami taste. Discovered by a Japanese researcher, umami is now recognized worldwide as the fifth basic taste sensation (along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter).
There are three specific amino acids that contain the taste we’ve come to know as umami: glutamate, guanylate and inosinate. Konbu, shiitake and katsuobushi, the most frequently used dashi ingredients, each respectively contain an abundance of glutamic, guanylic and inosinic acids.
The synergy of umami
Although konbu, shiitake and katsuobushi each yield an umami taste, the concentration of amino acids in each of them is actually not that high. However, their combined synergy creates a disproportionately strong umami!
You can create this synergy when making the dashi that will go into your meal. Instead of using only kombu or only katsuobushi, first boil the former, then add the latter. The synergy of the two ingredients will provide an umami-rich foundation for the dish they go into.
But you can also use the synergic umami effect to enhance a dish during the meal. For example, it is common to prepare yudofu, or boiled tofu, in kombu dashi. You then dip the tofu into a katsuobushi-enhanced soy sauce, effectively increasing the umami that ends up in your mouth!
Making maximum use of the synergy of umami is central to the daily Japanese diet. Dashi, the foundation of the washoku taste, is often the main source of that umami. Without the umami of washoku, Japanese cuisine wouldn’t be what we know and love today. So in the quest for understanding washoku, I think it’s not a stretch to say “no dashi, no life” – or “know dashi, know life” 😉