Eat Good Food

Umami in the Japanese Pantry

umami japanese pantry

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!

Bonito flakes
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 (konbu)
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.

Miso
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.

Soy sauce
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
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.

Umeboshi
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.

Dashi
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.

Chefs, Cooking

There and Here: Dashi

As part of our special ‘There and Here’ October programming celebrating the food, people, artisans, and traditions of Japan, we invited Mamiko Nishiyama, the proprietor of Tokyo’s Yagicho-Honten dashi shop, to spend time with us at our Healdsburg store.

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Artisan Producers, Chefs, Supper series

Umami, Dashi, Koji, and Culture

"When I cook at home, I don't use too much salt, cream, cheese, or oily sauces and dressings," writes chef and author Sonoko Sakai. "I use dashi. It's the fragrant stock that forms the base of miso soup and seasoning for many Japanese dishes. The most popular ingredients for making dashi are dried bonito flakes and konbu seaweed. When you combine konbu and bonito flakes, the natural occuring amino acids in the konbu and bonito flakes have a synergistic effect on the umami scale."

And when you add dried shitake mushrooms to the bonito and the konbu, Sakai says by phone from Seattle, the umami does more than triple in taste, it "accelerates." 

"I want all three amino acids to react to each other and give the deepest flavor it can attain," Sakai explains. "If a food has any protein in it, you have a way of adding umami flavor to your food. It's just more subtle."

Umami is the so-called fifth taste, after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The word is derived from delicious and scientists recently "discovered" it; the Japanese have known it for centuries. Umami forms the taste basis of the best beloved Japanese cooked foods. Sakai will show how to make dashi and shio-koji in a March 29 umami workshop at SHED and will showcase those flavors at a March 30 dinner she's cooking with Seattle chef Mutsuko Soma.

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