The so-called fifth taste after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty — umami is an essential ingredient in Japanese food and in the Japanese pantry.
Here are a few of our favorite umami-rich Japanese pantry items. We’ve also included a recipe for homemade dashi from chef and author Sonoko Sakai!
Smoked, dried, and cured bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes are used to make dashi (see below) and as a seasoning and topping in many other dishes.
Kombu grows in very cold water off the coast of Northern Japan. Naturally high in glutamates (umami), this dried sea kelp is a fundamental flavor component of dashi broth.
A flavorful, healthy paste that can be used in a host of ways from miso soup to veggie dip, dressings, and marinades, miso is created by fermenting fresh koji (rice inoculated with a special strain of mold) with soybeans, barley, or chickpeas.
Also called shoyu, soy sauce is the most important condiment and seasoning in Japanese cooking. Soy sauce is extracted from a fermented paste made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and yeast. There are several primary types of soy sauce, the most popular and widely available in the West being koikuchi— the familiar, dark, salty sauce.
Tamari shoyu is a type of soy sauce that is often (but not always) made without wheat, making it safe for the gluten-intolerant. Tamari has a complex, rounder, and more balanced flavor than other soy sauce varieties.
A sour fruit similar to plum and apricot that has been sun-dried, salted, and pickled with vinegar and red shiso leaves. Often eaten with rice and miso for breakfast in Japan. Learn how to make umeboshi in our Preserve the Season section.
A fundamental Japanese soup and cooking stock. Made of kombu (dashikonbu), and katsuobushi (bonito flakes), dashi forms the base for miso soup, clear broth, noodle broth, and many kinds of simmering liquids. Read more about dashi in this conversation with Mamiko Nishiyama, owner of Tokyo’s Yagicho-Honten dashi shop.
Recipe: Make Your Own Dashi
Dashi forms the base of miso soup as well as other healthful one-pot dishes. Here’s a delicious recipe from our friend Sonoko Sakai.
Makes 4 half-cup servings of stock
4 cups water
4 cups of loosely packed bonito flakes
One 3-inch piece of kombu (konbu) seaweed
Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the konbu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
Place kombu and water in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat until water almost boils. Remove kombu just before water boils to avoid fishy odor.
Once water boils, turn off heat and add bonito flakes. Do not stir – let stand for 3-5 minutes to let the flakes steep. Then strain the dashi through a very fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towel.
To avoid clouding the dashi, do not stir or press the bonito flakes.
Discard the bonito flakes and kombu or cook them in 4 cups of water to make a secondary dashi.
Slice the leftover kombu and use it in salads and pickles to add umami flavor.
Dashi will keep fresh for 3-5 days in the refrigerator.