Numerators and denominators are the key ingredients that make fractions. Fundamental denominators are key to realizing any food, and now imagine if you didn’t have a fridge, or a cold box to store foods and you can imagine Dashi. So how important is Dashi in Japanese cuisine, and what is dashi?
Simply put sophistication, and is one of the principal ingredients used as a base in almost all Japanese foods. In fact Dashi could be said to be the common denominator in all-Japanese foods. You’ll find it in ponzu, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, miso shiro soup, soba, udon, kaiseki and many more preparations.
What I find interesting about dashi, isn’t the dashi but the ingredients used. If you think about it, many Japanese foods are seasonal as in most places, but in Japan the seasonality is probably more relevant than anywhere else. The dashi isn’t a fresh seasonal ingredient, but is used throughout the entire year. Once the konbu (kelp) are harvested usually in July, the frond is dried and packaged they are ready to use. It sounds simple but the idea of using a sea product makes perfect sense. In fact, wild konbu takes two years to fully grow and some have a lifespan of three years.
Consistently made by using konbu and katsuobushi, skipjack (katsuobushi) is harvested dried, lightly smoked and fermented. If you look back in time, cavemen likely used smoke to preserve foods without understanding the benefits. I imagine that in some cases meat would be left over and stay in the fire’s smoke until the morning. I am sure the smoking helped preserve the meats and hunters would have the benefits of the meat being more resistant to rotting. This was a natural way to preserve the meats during those difficult months.
Dashi’s genius is that its principal ingredients are made from dry, smoked and fermented products, those that are not perishable. The added genius is the complexity of flavors, easy to expand depending on how you measure the ingredients. Lets say use more konbu, you’ll extract more umami flavors, and by adding sugar, mirin, shoyu, or sake you can expand the spectrum of flavor. All these additives are dried or preserved or maintained by their long shelf life. They embody the wondrous powers of the ocean and sun to nurture its life and key to our survival.
All the Dashi’s flavors come mostly from materials that are harvested once per year. This is one important reason why it’s the common denominator, a corner-stone in Japanese cuisine available anytime and was in each and every household.
But in the future, Japanese foods will change, and home chefs will gradually lose their tradition, and customs and a new Dashi will appear.
Right now Hokkaido produces 90 percent of the domestic kelp and had an output of 120,000 tons a decade ago. In recent years yields dropped to almost half. The water temperature in the summer the spores drift in the ideal temperatures of 17-18 degrees Celsius, though the effects of global warming pose a possible threat to these conditions.
What is that dashi going to look like in the future?…..my guess is it will be made from spores that are grown mechanically produced in a dark room, a high-tec laboratory where the compounds are easier to obtain and can be made into a concentrated liquid form.
Note: Tororo konbu, is another version of konbu that is immersed in vinegar and then dried and shaved. Konbu wholesalers go to even greater lengths to produce Tororo Konbu with a profound flavor. They spend as much as three years maturing the konbu, vinegaring, and sun-drying it in the summer months. In the past this konbu was hand shredded into strips that were as thin as 0.01 millimeters.