Wednesday 16 January 2019

Umami, Dashi, and the Hardest Food in the World

Visit any Japanese supermarket and you'll find a whole section selling ready made dashi, Japanese soup/broth stock that brings out the best flavours of Japanese food (washoku =和食). The stock is basically hot water infused with the savoury "umami" flavour of ingredients such as fish (especially dried bonito known as katsuobushi) and seaweed (especially kombu or kelp). Umami itself is a distinct fifth basic taste (after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty) identified and named by a Japanese chemist over a hundred years ago (umai in Japanese means delicious). Although umami was not universally recognised until 1985, the taste is by no means limited to Japanese palates, and explains the popularity of anything from ketchup on burgers to Parmesan cheese on tomato sauce with mushrooms!

Katsuobushi itself is a Japanese staple, and is often first encountered by non-Japanese sprinkled over the top of the Japanese savoury pancake known as okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). The way the wafer thin bonito -actually skipjack tuna- flakes dance and writhe around on top of the hot okonomiyaki is quite enchanting (see video at bottom). Katsuobushi flakes are also a common topping on rice and tofu. Dashi is for the most part invisible though and the vegetarian assuming a bowl of Japanese miso soup or noodles is safe should most definitely think again! Certainly, being a vegetarian today in Japan (let alone a vegan) is incredibly difficult, rather surprising given that Buddhist culture made eating meat largely a social taboo that was enforced by a long ban or prohibition on the killing and eating of meat up until Westernisation in the second half of the 19th century (see here).

Katsuobushi can also be bought in block form which is like a brick; indeed, katsuobushi is known as the world's hardest food (see here for a great video on how it's made). If you do buy it in block form you will need to shave it yourself which requires a specialised grater. As the picture shows, these can cost anything from ¥10,000 to ¥30,000 (£70~£210!).

Japan is experiencing something of a dashi boom at the moment, with soup bars and other specialist shops such as Dashiplus in Akasaka gaining a lot of attention as healthy eating choices. One place I personally would recommend is the Nihonbashi Dashi Bar (日本橋だし場) where you can choose to eat in or take out from a menu that includes everything from cheap and simple dashi broth, miso soup, and katsubushi meshi (cooked rice) to crispy dashi (だしおこげ), oden, and the baked snack-like nureokake (ぬれおかけ) - not to mention some wonderful soups and broths on the lunch menu. Perfect for a rather chilly Tokyo which enjoyed its first flurry of snow (hatsu-yuki =初雪) at the weekend!