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All great food begins with perfect dashi (stock).

Dashi takes time, dashi takes patience and dashi takes effort. But if prepared with care, as taught to me by my mentor, chef Toshikatsu Osako, dashi will take its unselfish place in the all-present background and all your food will shine.

By 9:30 a.m. I’m up and shopping at Kuromon market. Like a long line of young cooks have done for the last umpteen years, I buy one day’s worth of just-picked vegetables, crisp pickles, dependable sundries and a scrap of fish or meat to be coaxed into a meal to feed myself, the chef and his wife.

At the dimly lit restaurant by 11, I stand and begin my ritual behind the long wooden counter. In the quiet moments of the morning, I first wash the warm rice grains I have just polished in the whining, whirling rice polisher upstairs. As it soaks, I measure out water, preboiled with natural charcoal for purity, and put it aside for the making of dashi.

Next, draining the rice and letting it rest in the colander for several minutes, I place the lightly wiped konbu (kelp) in the water and the pot onto the stove. Some soak their konbu overnight, but the chef taught me that if you use the best konbu — wild Rishiri konbu from Hokkaido — then overnight soaking just muddles the flavor.

With one eye on the heating konbu I empty the rice into the gas-fired kama (rice pot), measure out the water and start the rice cooking. By this time, the konbu is just below the boil, right when I want to remove it to a separate bowl. Extinguishing the flame, I drop handfuls of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) into the hot, konbu-rich dashi water. And I wait. Just five minutes. Any more and the dashi will be too strong and the katsuo will loose its power to provide taste for the second batch, the niban.

Foam and froth skimmed away, I strain the dashi through a fine cheesecloth and cool it in an ice-water bath so that the unused portion may be used tomorrow and taste just as fresh. The ichiban (number one) katsuo dashi — the first-run bonito stock that will serve as a palette for the rest of today’s cooking — is done.

Shojin dashi (Konbu dashi)

Konbu (sometimes kobu) is giant kelp found wild and farm-raised off the coasts of Japan, Korea and North America. Konbu dashi is a light vegetarian stock used in simmered dishes and soups and as an all-purpose stock in vegetarian cookery.

1liter water
10 cm (20 grams) konbu

1) Clean konbu by wiping lightly with a damp cloth.

2) Place konbu and water in a glass bowl and let stand for 2-3 hours.

3) Remove konbu and refrigerate unused portion. Will keep 3-5 days.

Iriko dashi (Niboshi dashi)

Niboshi are small, dried iwashi (sardines). Niboshi dashi is one of the three main dashi and has a strong flavor, making it ideal for hearty preparations such as some miso soups.

1 liter water
30 grams dried niboshi fish

1) Remove heads and stomachs, and split larger fish in half.

2) Slowly dry roast niboshi in a pan on the stove top, taking care not to burn.

3) Place niboshi and water in a cooking pot and let stand for 30 minutes.

4) Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a low simmer.

5) Simmer for 3-5 minutes, skimming foam off the surface.

6) Strain and refrigerate unused portion for up to 3 days.

Katsuo dashi (Ichiban and niban dashi)

Katsuo (sometimes translated as skipjack but more commonly known as bonito) is harvested in Hokkaido, Hokui and, most famously, in Tosa (Kochi Prefecture) on Shikoku. For katsuobushi, the fish is smoked, aged and dried as hard as wood so it may be shaved in a special box that looks like a carpenter’s plane. The best-tasting flakes are from the back of male fish, as they contain little blood. The higher quality the katsuobushi, the more may be used in a stock.

Katsuo dashi is the backbone of all Japanese cooking. It is mild and flavorful, making it a perfect foil for simmered dishes, all soups and is the base of most dipping sauces.

1 liter water
10 cm (20 grams) konbu handful (30 grams) katsuobushi

1) Clean konbu by wiping lightly with a damp cloth.

2) Place konbu and water in a pot over medium heat.

3) Remove konbu just before water boils, add katsuo and remove from heat.

4) Let stand 5 minutes while katsuo sinks to the bottom, skimming the foam off the surface.

5) Strain through cheesecloth or a clean, cotton kitchen towel. If not using immediately, cool and refrigerate. Dashi can be refrigerated for 3 to 5 days.

* To make niban dashi, remoisten the strained konbu and katsuo with the same amount of water, add a little more katsuo and simmer for around 10 minutes.

Next week, what you dip your sashimi in: Tosa joyu.

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