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In Search of Dashi and Perfect Miso Soup

A better way to make Japanese soup.

Turns out, once you have all the ingredients, the process is rather straight forward and won't take longer than 30 minutes or so.  And since most of the ingredients besides the tofu are pantry items, whipping up a new batch of miso soup in the future should be a breeze.

Bonito smells like, well, dried fish, but it looks more like pencil shavings. They are the body behind the miso, and make the whole ordeal more rounded and complex. It's astonishing how much difference it makes. It's sort of like how a real fine chicken stock can make the simplest soup extraordinary. Best part is that unlike bone laden stocks this can be made in minutes, not hours. But what is the best way to make dashi?

Thanks to Saveur and this lengthy eGullet post, I think I'm beginning to understand the concept.  Dashi is the base of Japanese cuisine, and crucially important, but it's not as simple as tossing a bunch of bonito and kelp together. In fact, there isn't a single kind of dashi. There are many kinds, but the two I focused on where the ichiban-dashi (or first stock) and niban-dashi (or second stock).

Both have their purposes. My purpose was miso soup, so where to go? Turns out the first dashi was better for something called suimono, which are clear soups (I told you my knowledge of Japanese cuisine was criminally low). For the second dashi, the leftover bonito flakes and kelp from making the first dashi are tossed into a pot for the base for this batch. This version is cloudier and more flavored and is the perfect base for miso. Got that?

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Once the niban-dashi is made, the process of miso is simple.  The different kinds of miso are added, diced tofu is dropped in for a minute, and then it's scooped into a bowl and served with some of the pre-soaked seaweed and some chopped scallions.  Simple stuff.  But was it worth it?

I will say, without trying to get too dramatic, that this was easily the best miso soup I've ever had.  It's incredibly full flavored and strangely rich.  It made cheap versions of miso they pass out in restaurants seem like glorified water.  This sounds like something I could, without much resistance, get really into.

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I do have a few questions.  To get to miso soup, you need to make the first dashi, and then make the second one.  So what is a good use for the first one?  I just tossed some tofu into the bowl with the clear first stock, but it was awfully bland.  Any other ideas?  

Also, I'm thinking you can just bypass the first stock for the second if your mission is only miso soup.  This recipe from Saveur seems to do just that.  Is this right? 

Like I've said over and over, this is just the beginning.  I'm just fascinated that something so flavorful can be created so quickly and cheaply. 

Ichiban-Dashi (First Stock)
adapted from here.
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  • 1/3 ounce konbu, wipped clean with a damp towel
  • 5 cups cold water
  • 1/2 ounce bonito flakes

Place the konbu in a pot along with 4 cups of the water.  Turn the heat to medium-high and cook until it comes to a slight simmer.  Then turn the heat to medium-low.  Cook the konbu for 2 minutes and then remove and set aside. 

Turn the heat to medium-high and wait until the water comes to a boil.  Add the rest of the water, and then the bonito flakes.  Be sure not to stir.  Once the water hits a boil, turn off the heat.  When the bonito flakes fall to the bottom of the pot, strain through a sieve or through a cheese cloth.  Set the bonito flakes aside.

This is Ichiban dashi...I'm not sure what to do with it.

Niban-Dashi (Second Stock)

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  • Leftover konbu and bonito flakes
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/8 ounce konbu
  • 1/4 ounce bonito flakes

Add the leftover konbu and bonito flakes to a pot along with the new konbu.  Add the water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes.  Dump in the bonito flakes.  Remove the pot from heat.  Wait until the bonito flakes sink to the bottom of the pot.  Then strain the dashi through a cheesecloth or sieve.  Throw away the konbu and bonito flakes. 

Miso Soup
Serves 4
Adapted from Saveur. 

  • 1/2 ounce wakame (dried seaweed)
  • 2 tablespoons aka miso
  • 4 tablespoons shiro miso
  • 7 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1/4" cubes
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
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Place wakame into a bowl and cover with water.  Set aside for 10 minutes or so. 

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Meanwhile, pour the niban-dashi into a medium pot.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Add both misos and whisk until incorporated.  Dump in the tofu and cook for 1 minute. 

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Remove the wakame and rinse to remove any salt.  Chop into 1 inch pieces.  Divide the wakame and scallions between 4 bowls.  Ladle in the miso soup evenly amongst the bowls.