Dashi is a class of soup and cooking stock used in Japanese cuisine. This liquid flavoring is essential in giving the right taste to the miso soup, noodle broth, clear broth and other kinds of liquid broth that requires simmering. A lot of Asian cuisines uses dashi to underscore their flavor as part of the umami. The takoyaki and okonomiyaki are just among the grilled foods that use dashi to form its tasty batter which is made of flour.
You can actually make the dashi at home with simple ingredients and it is also the most common form of dashi. It is made by simmering the kezurikatsuo (preserved, fermented skipjack tuna shaved) and the kombu (edible kelp) in boiling water for 3 – 5 minutes, then strain it leaving only the broth which is called, the dashi.
Combining the flavors of katsuobushi and kombu in the broth unleashes the element of umami (one of the five basic tastes) into the dashi. The high content of sodium inosinate in the katsuobushi and the glutamic acids in the kombu creates a synergy of umami that’s very appealing to the taste buds on the tongue, which is why most people love it.
However, the homemade dashi is no longer popular these days, even in Japan as it has been replaced by the granulated or liquid instant dashi since the end of WWII. The added glutamates and ribonucleotides which are chemical flavor enhancers in the instant dashi is preferred by chefs due to it having a stronger yet less subtle flavor compared to the homemade dashi.
There are also other variations of dashi stock which includes soaking shiitake, niboshi or kelp in plain water for long hours to extract their flavors, or by simmering them in 70 – 80° Celsius hot water and then straining the broth that becomes of it.
Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor in the Tokyo Imperial University, discovered the unusual and strong flavor of kelp dashi in 1908 and identified it as the “fifth flavor” of the umami. According to him the glutamic acid found in kelp dashi stimulates a specific human taste receptor.
Umami is one of the five basic tastes that the human taste receptors reacts to and easily identifies as either sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami. It has been described as savory and is characteristic of broths and cooked meats. Believe it or not, until the dashi was invented scientists didn’t know that humans have a specific taste receptor that reacts to the glutamate in the dashi. In essence Professor Kikunae Ikeda discovered both the umami and the glutamic taste receptor in the tongue. Umami is roughly translated as “pleasant savory taste” and it was also Professor Ikeda that coined the term.
When You Run Out of Dashi
When you don’t live in Japan or in Asia, it can be a bit irritating to know that there aren’t a lot of Asian or more precisely Japanese stores that sells instant dashi or kelp or shavings of a fermented skipjack tuna for that matter. If you’re a fan of Japanese foods like the miso soup, katsudon, sukiyaki or the oyakodon, then it might put you off of your mood because you won’t be able to cook your favorite Japanese meals.
Although you can actually order the instant dashi online, but it may take a few days before it arrives, still it’s a good way to store as much dashi in the cupboard as possible for all your future preparations of Japanese delicacies.
Do not fret because there are actually alternatives to the dashi broth and you running out of dashi is the perfect time to try out dashi variants and replacements. It may not be to your liking when trying out these alternatives for the very first time, especially since you’re accustomed to the taste of regular dashi, but in time you will find that the varying flavors are also good to the taste. Even though the substitute may not be picked up by the taste receptors that are specifically tuned to the umami (glutamic acids), it can still be the next best thing.
Here are 5 alternatives to dashi:
White Meat Fishes
Going by Japanese tradition, the washoku (和食) or Japanese cooking, they had originally intended for the dashi to be made from fish or seafood broth. Fumet is what you call a fish stock and at the basic level it is comparable to the dashi as the seafood taste is rooted deep within it.
If you’re going to make a dashi replacement, then you will need mild, non-oily, white-meat fishes, such as the tilefish, bass, halibut, snapper and cod. Do not use tuna or mackerel as these types of fish have stronger fish flavor and might dominate the overall flavor of the dish that you’re preparing.
Take note that dashi is just a flavor agent and while it gives the perfect taste to the meal, it does not in any way overtake it. In order to get started you’re going to need to get the parts of the fish that people don’t normally eat like the head and bones (you may also need a few pounds of flesh).
These meat scraps are actually free in the fish market, so you don’t necessarily need to spend money on this trip. Once you’ve acquired the parts you need, then wash them thoroughly and make sure no traces of blood remain on them as they will turn the broth into a bitter juice.
How to make the fish dashi stock:
- Turn on the stove and pour 7 – 8 quarts of water in it, then boil it in high heat.
- Pre-heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and saute the aromatics which are the tarragon, parseley, fennel, celery, garlic, leeks and onions. Cut the vegetables into very thin slices and tie the bay leaves in a string.
- Use either 2 quarts of water or 1/2 cup of white wine to the aromatics. Make sure that the wine or water fill the skillet that it almost cover the fish scraps and cook for 1 – 3 minutes.
- Once done, then pour the aromatics and fish scraps into the 8 quarts of water that you’ve boiled earlier. Let simmer for 30 minutes – 1 hour.
- You may also opt to not use the aromatics anymore and just replace them with 1 – 2 tbsp. of soy sauce, 1 tbsp of sugar and 1 tsp of mirin and cook them together with the fish scraps.
- After you’ve simmered it for an hour, then the fish broth substitute for dashi should be ready.
- Strain the mix and put it in a glass container and refrigerate it. You can store it in the freezer for up to a month before you use it.
For this dashi substitute recipe, you will need to use shellfish scraps instead of fish, but prawns and shrimps create a better taste for this type of dashi than shellfish, so you may want to put preference on the shrimp.
How to make the shellfish stock:
- Dice your aromatics into small cubes and the garlic should be minced, these include the 2 cloves of garlic, 3 stalks of celery, 2 cups of carrots and 2 cups of onions.
- Turn on the stove and pre-heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan. Saute the aromatics (except the garlic) together with the 1 lbs. of large shrimp scraps raw. Cook for 15 minutes or until they turn brown in color.
- This time toss in the garlic and stir-fry the whole mix for another 2 minutes.
- Then add the 1 and 1/2 quarts of water, 1/2 cup of white wine, 1/3 cup of tomato paste, 1 and ½ tsp. of black pepper (freshly grounded), 1 tbsp. of kosher salt and 10 sprigs of fresh thyme (stems not removed).
- Allow the recipe to boil and simmer for an hour.
- Once cook, then turn off the stove and pour the recipe onto a medium-size bowl as you let everything pass through a sieve. Extract only the juice/broth that’s made from it, discard the rest.
- You now have made a perfect shellfish/shrimp dashi broth. Store it in your fridge and use it sparingly for any dish that requires dashi in the future.
If you’re a vegetarian or you plan to cook for people who are on vegan diet, then the vegetable seaweed and mushrooms (kombu and shiitake) dashi alternative would be a great option to try.
How to make the vegan dashi stock:
Use dried mushrooms and seaweed for this recipe and follow the instructions on the kombu pack. Get a clean empty pot, pour 4 cups of water into it and then let the seaweed sit in it for about 30 minutes (do not turn on the stove yet). Check the taste of the water by using a spoon (the seaweed should turn the water into some kind of tea) and check the seaweed too if they feel somewhat slippery.
Once you’ve soaked the kombu for 30 minutes, then it’s time to turn on the stove and boil it in high heat. Since you’ve only put 4 cups of water into the mix, you may want to also check if the water evaporates too quickly and replenish it to get the desired amount of broth.
As for the mushroom stock, you just do what was done with the seaweed and soak it in 4 cups of water also for about 30 minutes. Only this time though you don’t need to boil the mushrooms and you simply need to pinch the mushrooms to get that strong umami flavor (if you feel the mushrooms are soft enough, then that’s the time they’ll be ready).
Unlike the kombu, however, you can reuse the mushroom for up to 10 times before throwing them away, so that means you can make a lot of mushroom dashi substitute also. Place the mushrooms in a plastic bag and put them in the freezer for future use.
Other vegetables that are also good to make dashi from are sundried daikon and sundried carrot peelings. These vegetables contain basal umami (free glutamate) which are good dashi alternatives. If you wish to experiment further with other vegetables and herbs to make a dashi substitute, then visit the Umami Information Center for more details.
Chicken broth is easier to make as chicken meat is widely available and all the other ingredients needed to make it is very accessible too!
How to make the chicken dashi stock:
- 1 3 lbs. chicken, or use parts, such as wings and backs
- 4 stalks celery, (with leaves), trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 small bunch fresh parsley, washed
- 6 sprigs fresh thyme, or teaspoon dried
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 4 quarts cold water
- Turn on the stove, set to medium-high heat, set a large cooking pot over it and put all the aromatic ingredients in it (4 quarts of cold water, salt, thyme, parsley, garlic, onion, carrots, celery and chicken). Bring to boil for about 30 minutes and then reduce temperature to medium low, cover with lid and simmer for 2 hours until the chicken falls apart. Skim the foam from the surface as it builds up.
- Strain the broth through a large sieve or colander into a large bowl. Once cooked, take a big sieve and strain the broth into a large bowl. Press the recipe using a wooden spoon as much as possible to get all of the broth.
- Pour the broth in a pint glass jar (4 pieces), cover them with lid and refrigerate overnight. Now you’ll have lots of chicken dashi stock in reserves to use for all your future recipes that may require it.
Powdered or Cubed Broth
Cubed and powdered broths are probably the easiest way to make dashi stock and while you may use chicken, fish or shrimp flavors, you should never use pork or beef cube or powdered broth as they will not only accentuate the taste of your dish, but instead overpower it. Salt, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed soy/corn/wheat gluten protein, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, beef fat, and many more are just some of the ingredients in a beef broth cube.
Too much beef fat and MSG (monosodium glutamate) gives the the broth cube its strong flavor, but even natural beef broth extracted from fresh cow’s meat still has the same effect. So it’s best to steer away from it and prok flavored cubes all together.
Dashi Substitutes for Some of Your Favorite Japanese Dishes
Technically all the ingredients for homemade dashi are easily accessible in Japanese and most Asian grocery stores; however, there may be times when they too will run out of stock or the new ones they’ve ordered hasn’t arrived yet. Fortunately for you, the dashi replacements discussed above should come in handy for situations such as this, especially if you can’t wait for the original ingredients used for the dashi to become available anytime soon.
Below are some of the delicious recipes that you can prepare with any of the dashi stock alternatives mentioned above.
- 1/2 cup dried wakame (a type of seaweed)
- 1/4 cup shiro miso (white fermented-soybean paste)
- 6 cups Dashi
- 1/2 pound soft tofu, drained and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallion greens
Get a large bowl and pour cold water in it. Make sure the water covers 1 inch thick from the bottom of the bowl and put the wakame in it, then soak for 15 minutes. Afterwards drain the water using a sieve.
Stir together miso and 1/2 cup dashi in a bowl until smooth. Turn on the stove and set to medium-high heat and pour the dashi until it’s hot. Toss the tofu in as well as the wakame broth and simmer for 1 minute stirring occasionally. Turn off the stove and pour the miso mix into the tofu, wakame and dashi. Stir thoroughly and then add the scallions and serve.
Katsudon (with Rice)
- 2 center-cut, boneless pork chops (pounded down to a centimeter thick)
- 2 eggs (beaten, divided)
- Flour (for dusting)
- 1 cup panko
- Oil (for frying)
- 1 onion (thinly sliced)
- 1 1/4 cup dashi soup stock
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 4 cups Japanese steamed rice
- Drizzle with salt and pepper the pork chops that’s been pounded.
- Dust with a light, even coating of flour.
- Get a small bowl and beat 1 egg in it, then put the panko in another small bowl.
- Pre-heat the skillet over medium heat and pour the cooking oil in it until it gets hot.
- Dip the pork into the egg to coat.
- Coat the pork well with panko breadcrumbs in order to prepare it for sauteing.
- Slowly drop each pork chop into the hot oil in the skillet and saute it for 5 – 6 minutes on each side until they become golden brown.
- Prepare a large plate and put some paper towels on top of it, then place the fried pork chops over it to drain the oil off of the meat.
- This time slice the tonkatsu into tiny bits.
- Get another frying pan and pour the dashi in it, then cook over medium heat.
- Add sugar, mirin and soy sauce to the dashi soup and wait until it boils, then turn off the stove.
- In order to prepare 1 serving of katsudon, do the following: turn on the stove and pre-heat the small skillet over medium heat, then pour 1/4 cup dashi soup plus 1/4 onion slices into the skillet and allow to simmer for 1 – 3 minutes.
- Then add 1 serving of tonkatsu pieces to the dashi soup mix in the skillet and simmer again for 1 – 3 minutes.
- Wait until the dashi soup boils, then pour the beaten egg that you’ve set aside earlier over the tonkatsu and onion.
- Set temperature to low and cover skillet with a lid. After 60 seconds turn off the stove.
- Put 1 tonkatsu on top of a large rice bowl with steamed rice and serve.
- 1/4cup (60ml) Dashi
- 1/2 tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tbsp Sake
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tbsp Mirin
- 1/4 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 chicken thigh, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1 egg
- 1/2 green onion, thinly sliced
- Steamed rice
- Turn on the stove, put the frying pan atop and set to high heat. Add mirin, soy sauce, sake, sugar and dashi, then bring to boil.
- Toss in the onion and stir-fry for 1 minute on medium heat.
- Add the sliced chicken and cook for 5 – 6 minutes or until they turn golden brown.
- Get a small bowl and beat the egg in it. Pour the scrambled egg over the chicken and onion mix in the frying pan, cover with a lid and cook for another minute.
- Transfer the oyakodon into a rice bowl, add sauce and sprinkle with green onions, then serve.