Dashi and Miso soup

If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you’ve probably been served miso soup (misoshiru) as a first course. The ingredients floating in the soup can vary from a few tofu cubes and a bit of seaweed to a more substantive soup with chicken or shrimp and vegetables like potato, mushrooms and snow peas. Unfortunately, as a restaurant appetizer the former description usually applies – leaving most Americans wondering “what’s the big deal about miso soup?”

Regardless of the other ingredients used, an authentic miso soup always starts with a dashi broth.  Dashi is an all-purpose Japanese stock used for soups and many other dishes in Japanese cuisine.  To make dashi from scratch, water is brought to a boil with bonito flakes and konbu, shown on the plate below. Bonito is a type of fish that is dried and said to look like a “hunk of wood”. The dried fish is shaved very thinly so that it releases it’s salty and fishy flavor when boiled in the water. Many Japanese cooks will actually freshly shave their own flakes from a dried bonito fillet immediately prior to cooking for better flavor. But I buy it already shaved and ready to go as shown below on the left side of the plate. I’d be likely to shave off part of my finger in the process anyway! :)

Konbu is a giant kelp that is also cut and dried and develops a white film on the surface that conveys most of the flavor. The konbu is cooked in the water until just before it begins to boil, then removed from the broth. The bonito flakes are only just boiled and then removed from the heat. Once the flakes settle, the broth is filtered and used for many purposes. This first pass is called ichiban dashi (or first dashi), which is used for clear soups.  The same ingredients can be used to make a second or niban dashi, but similar to steeping your tea bag the second time, this makes a weaker broth that is used for other secondary seasoning purposes.

As with anything else ‘instant’, instant dashi is a tradeoff of flavor for convenience. For me, in most dishes with other flavors that overwhelm the dashi – where niban dashi would be used anyway – instant dashi seems to be sufficient, at least my Western palate isn’t able to distinguish much of a difference. However, for a dish like a clear soup (suimono) where dashi is the main flavor, the dashi made from scratch will likely be preferred as a more pure flavor.

After the dashi has been finished, making miso soup is a cinch!  For tonight’s dinner, I made this miso soup combination with shrimp, tofu and snap peas (and yes, I used the instant dashi – it’s a weeknight after all! :)

Miso Soup with Shrimp and Peas
3 1/2 c. dashi broth
6 oz. shrimp, peeled and chopped into small pieces
6 oz. (half a block) extra firm tofu, pressed dry and diced
3 oz. shiro miso (white “sweet” miso)
1 c. snap or snow peas

Mix the shrimp with 1 tsp. of the miso, but whisk the remaining miso into the dashi broth to dissolve.  Bring the broth to a boil, then add the shrimp, tofu and peas. Simmer gently until the peas and shrimp are done to your liking.

Note: Miso is fermented soybean paste that is fermented with salt – so when using miso, you don’t usually need to add any additional salt.  White miso is considered more sweet and the darker the miso, the more salty it gets, but even the white is plenty salty. You can use any kind of miso you like for miso soup, it’s up to your personal taste.

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