The inherent limitations in trying to translate all of the Japanese culinary terms present one of the most difficult challenges in writing this blog. Because I cook and eat predominantly Japanese or Japanese-inspired vegetarian food these days, I would love to share some of these more exotic culinary treasures from the Japanese. BUT IT IS SO HARD TO AVOID JP TERMS!
So I decided the quickest way to not feeling guilty about using these non-translatable words is to develop a log of all the terms I frequently use and have it posted here. Then, I can always just refer back to these pages during my future posts if necessary.
Nothing is more appropriate as my first Terms post than Dashi. Dashi literally means broth, and it is the heart and soul of Japanese cuisine. What a cook chooses to make dashi with defines the cook. Yes, it is that important.
Being a semi-vegetarian, I still use animal-based broth from time to time. Some dishes just require that briney depth of flavor that only bonito (katsuo in Japanese) and other dried fish can provide. I use them less and less now, as my non-meat based cooking moves away from dishes that require that extra punch, but the combination of konbu kelp and bonito flakes is the fundamental pillars of most JP broth.
Dashi is made first by soaking konbu kelp in cold water. Sometimes, I do this overnight, other times, only while I chop and prep the rest of the meal. It is best if the konbu is kept in as whole a piece as possible, or the broth can get "sticky". There is something in the konbu that makes water viscous and it leaks out more with more exposed lateral surface area. Of course, sometimes that stickiness and powerful mineral flavor is needed for the dashi - and in those case, crumpling the konbu while it is dry works best for me.
Next, I let the water with the konbu come to a boil, slowly. The traditionalists will say that the konbu must be taken out when the water reaches a boil. Letting the konbu stay is supposed to make the broth too minerally and viscous. I happen to like it slightly over-konbu'ed and I leave that piece in there until the very end.
I depart from the traditionalists in the following step too. The treasured, classical "First Dashi", the equivalent of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, is made by dumping a lot of bonito flakes into the konbu broth after it boils until a second boil is achieved. Then, everything is strained, and voila! Perfect dashi!
I have two problems with this. One is simply that my allergies prevent me from being able to safely consume left over bonito flakes, no matter how careful I strain the broth. The second is that... I think it's a BIG WASTE OF BONITO!
There is so much more deliciousness packed in that bonito, and in fact, a second, more "unrefined" preparation called "Second Dashi" is made with the remaining bonito in classical JP cooking too. Since my home cooking tends to be less refined and more powerful, I just use a tea bag and steep the bonito flakes for a long while.
Yup. A tea bag.
I let this bonito-flake-stuffed tea bag follow the konbu all the way from start to finish. The process is simple, and the final product is potent and satisfyingly deep in flavor enough to require nothing but a pot full of vegetables to nourish and satisfy two marathon-training runners, especially after the addition of a few more shiitake mushrooms!
PS: Those balls that look like fish balls are Japanese taro potatoes called Sato Imo.