In a traditional Japanese restaurant's kitchen, the head chef — the oya-kata, literally the boss — wields the knife and rules the cutting board. He watches and directs each phase of food preparation, beginning with the early-morning procurement of fish. Standing close to the chef and performing an equally vital role in the kitchen is his No. 2 man: the ni-kata.

The ni-kata's principal tasks are making all of the stocks and simmering all the vegetables, as well as overseeing the cooking of anything in the kitchen during the restaurant's service hours. The ni-kata's name derives from what he principally does. Ni is the root of the verb niru, to simmer. The importance of this cooking technique becomes obvious when you realize that everything simmered in a Japanese kitchen is handled with care by the person with perhaps the most experience in the kitchen, second only to the chef.

At home, many Japanese are getting farther and farther away from many of these original simmering methods. By using quick, instant dashi when preparing daily meals, they're missing an opportunity to enjoy the unadulterated flavors of simmered foods.