Dashi, a Japanese stock made from kelp and dried fish, is going mainstream. It’s suddenly appearing on the menus of all sorts of fancy restaurants, many of which have little to do with Japanese food. The reason? Umami.
“It’s basically water, but fantastically perfumed water,” said Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin. He complements Kumamoto oysters with dashi gelée, finishes mushrooms with the stock, and brushes it on raw fish before layering on olive oil and citrus. “The dashi is invisible,” he said, “but it brings more depth.”
At Per Se, its chef de cuisine, Jonathan Benno, weds the stock to preparations of Japanese fish, like a grilled hamachi belly canapé with dashi poured tableside. Jean-Georges Vongerichten adds dashi to a light mayonnaise at Perry St., and at Jean Georges he accents caramelized sirloin, grilled foie gras and slow-cooked snapper with it. “I realized its umami flavor can go anywhere,” Mr. Vongerichten said.
Kelp and bonito are loaded with umami, the taste of mouthwatering savoriness.
Dashi, which simply means “stock” in Japanese, is prepared from many ingredients. But dashi made from kelp and bonito holds pride of place. For much of Japan’s history, eating meat was taboo. So instead of animal fats and butter, which flavor Western cooking, dashi evolved to infuse umami-rich taste.
I think the prevalence of dashi – it’s used in Japanese cuisine the way French chefs use meat stock – demonstrates just how much the human tongue craves the taste of umami. Even when meat is taboo, chefs find a way to enrich their dishes with the savoriness of unraveled glutmate, the amino acid largely responsible for the taste of umami. Just look at sushi. Why do we dip sushi in soy sauce? Well, the raw fish, being raw, is low in umami, since its glutamate is not yet disentangled. A touch of soy sauce gives our tongue the burst of umami that we crave.
Interestingly, the discovery of the umami taste – the so-called fifth taste sensation – was actually inspired by a bowl of dashi. Here’s how I describe the discovery in my book:
The year was 1907 and Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda asked himself a simple question: what does dashi taste like? Dashi is a classic Japanese broth made from kombo, a dried form of kelp. Since at least 797 A.D., dashi has been used in Japanese cooking like Escoffier used stock, as a universal solvent, a base for every dish. But to Ikeda, the dashi his wife cooked for him every night didn’t taste like any of the four classic tastes or even like some unique combination of them. It was simply delicious. Or, as the Japanese would say, it was umai.
And so Ikeda began his quixotic quest for this unknown taste. He distilled fields of seaweed, searching for the essence that might trigger the same mysterious sensation as a steaming bowl of seaweed broth. He also explored other cuisines. “There is,” Ikeda declared, “a taste which is common to asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat but which is not one of the four well known tastes.” Finally, after patient years of lonely chemistry, in which he tried to distill the secret ingredient that dashi and veal stock had in common, Ikeda found his secret molecule. He announced his discovery in the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo.