Dashi is the base of Japanese cuisine, and crucially important in making a simple miso soup.
I just wanted to make a bowl of miso soup. That's all. It was going to be the first course of a casual dinner party, something that wouldn't require too much attention so I could focus and pull off the main course in a reasonable amount of time. I figured all I needed was some miso paste, a hunk of tofu, and a seaweed or two to make it look right. I was wrong.
This perturbed me to no end. Japanese cuisine is not one I've indulged in that often, feeling far more comfortable across the Straight of Korea in, well...Korea. I find that cuisine brasher and more gloriously hedonistic. I certainly respect Japanese cuisine, but it's not one I've wanted to really figure out. Or at least not right now. Now I have no choice.
To make a proper miso soup I needed to make dashi. To make dashi I needed water, konbu, and bonito flakes. As for those last two ingredients? I had no idea. I just set off for my local Asian market figuring I'd run across them at some point. There I spent well over thirty minutes trying to decipher labels with my nonexistent grasp of any Asian language. Finally, after a good 10 minutes sprawled out on the floor looking at the bottom shelf, I got the nerve to ask someone where I might find these things. She just laughed.
Konbu is dried kelp, which means my miso was going to have dried kelp and seaweed. Who knew?
As for the bonito, it's skipjack tuna that has been smoked and dried into something called katsuobushi. This resulting wood-like block is then shaved into flakes and sold in plastic bags. Of course, the bags of them were on the top shelf.
What about the miso? In my mind miso was miso, but it turns out there are various kinds which vary in color and strength. The recipe I was using called for shiro miso and aka miso. I have much more to learn about this as well.
As left the market with a bag of wakame (seaweed), dried kelp, two kinds of miso, a bag of bonito flakes, two packages of tofu, and scallions, I wondered how long this new obsession of mine would take and whether I'd ever get that first course out before the dinner guests got hungry.