Dashi is a clear Japanese stock, perhaps the most important, definitive flavour of Japanese cuisine. Have a browse through any Japanese cookbook, and over and over again you’ll find dashi listed as a key ingredient. While the importance of stock in western cuisine cannot be underestimated – think about all of those French mother sauces that rely on a veal or beef stock that has been lovingly bubbling away in a giant stock pot for hours – the sheer umami punch of dashi, with its uniquely oceanic flavour, gives Japanese dishes that distinctive something that makes the cuisine so uniquely delicious.
Dashi is actually a rather loose term for this stock, which can be made from a variety of different ingredients depending on the type of flavour you want to imbue in your dishes. The very heart of dashi, it is often argued, lies in dried bonito flakes, which come from skipjack tuna that has been dried, smoked and fermented until it resemble small blocks of wood. Although this may not sound all too appetising, the beautiful pinkish flakes are the umami heart of dashi.
The second key dashi ingredient is kombu, a type of Japanese kelp which resembles very dark leather, and comes in large flat sheets. This provides the hit of seaside flavour to your dashi, which again packs in more of that umami taste. You can make a vegan dashi stock just by soaking kombu in water, but the most common magic combination is that of bonito and kombu.
There are some other key ingredients you’ll often find in dashi. For example, if you want a vegetarian stock for a dish, shiitake mushrooms are often used in place of the bonito flakes. They are also packed with umami flavour but add a wonderfully earthy edge to the stock. To enhance the seaside flavour of dashi, dried sardines, also known as niboshi, are also often added for a truly unique flavour.