Dashi is a broth made of only three ingredients
Northeast of Kyoto, the old imperial city of Japan, and not far from the famous Ginkakuji (silver pavilion) temple stands an unremarkable wooden house. Inside, Hisao Nakahigashi runs the Sojiki Nakahigashi restaurant, where guests enjoy a pleasant, calm atmosphere despite the traffic roaring by outside. Nakahigashi has two Michelin stars, but the most important thing here is the dashi.
I originally met chef Nakahigashi while researching dashi for my doctorate. Dashi is the broth at the heart of Japanese cooking. It is used in countless recipes but only consists of three ingredients: soft water, extracts of kombu (an edible kelp), and smoked bonito, a member of the tuna fish family.
Because dashi tastes different depending on who makes it, it is what defines the signature flavor of every Japanese restaurant. Sometimes it’s smooth and light, other times electrifyingly full-bodied. Yet dashi remains in the background, creating the warm light on stage for the entrance of vegetables, fish and anything else a restaurant serves. Vegetables are the leading actors in Nakahigashi’s kitchen, by the way, which is why he (photo below) pays daily visits to the people outside of Kyoto who grow the herbs, vegetables and fruit he buys.
You have to listen to what the plants are saying, Nakahigashi explains. After tasting one of his dishes, I understand what he means: The flavors tell of farmers who are passionate about their work, of nature and authenticity – and they are brought to the fore by a full-bodied but delicate dashi.