Okayama – Mika Kumahara calls herself a “dashi sensei.”
Dashi is such an elemental component of Japanese cuisine that the idea of needing a teacher is surprising.
For all its simplicity, few people actually make it themselves; if you take a peek into kitchen pantries across the country, you’ll probably find that ubiquitous packet of umami in a box — instant dashi.
For Kumahara, a mother of two young boys from Okayama, her role as a dashi sensei is as much about technique as it is about advocacy.
In 2017, Kumahara started her Akachan no Odashiyasan (Baby’s Dashi Shop) classes together with her husband, Takanori, the third-generation owner of Tyuusui, which sells dried provisions such as kelp and sardines in Okayama City Central Wholesale Market.
“I had two reasons for starting the class,” she says. “First of all, we were frequently asked by customers, especially by those in their 20s and 30s, about how to make dashi and how to use it. Also, I started thinking a lot about food in general when my son was born, and I recognized the importance of using dashi for making baby food.”
The akachan (baby) dashi classes are informal and noisy affairs. Parents show up with their children in tow, so Kumahara follows a very simple format to teach them how to make and use the broth.
Kumahara starts each class with a simple cold-brew dashi recipe so both dashi-making novices and busy parents can enjoy the naturally made product. Then she moves on to ways to use dashi in baby food, outlining why it’s such a powerful base for infants.
She points out that dashi’s typical umami-rich ingredients, such as konbu (kelp) and niboshi (dried sardines), are rich in acids that aid metabolism and neurotransmission. Dashi’s delicate flavoring and lack of seasoning also allows babies to taste the flavors of the food they are eating, whether that be fish, meat or vegetables.
Yachiyo Sakamoto, a professor at Kurashiki Sakuyo University and president of the Okayama Dietician Association, says when we feed babies naturally made dashi they learn a very important lesson.
“Using natural dashi for baby food can teach babies what umami tastes like,” Sakamoto says. “Natural dashi is a fundamental ingredient for babies to learn and get used to eating Japanese food.”
Forty or 50 years ago, a dashi sensei advocating for using homemade dashi in baby food would have been unnecessary. Indeed, Sakamoto points out, as recently as the Showa Era (1926-89) it was nothing special to feed babies dashi-based food.
“People made dashi by themselves for cooking miso soup everyday. So they would use it for baby food as well,” Sakamoto says.
Kumahara acknowledges that making dashi from scratch takes extra time and effort when compared to getting it directly from a packet.
“I know from the classes and working in the shop there are many parents who want to do this, but are stuck for time,” she says. “But what I want to do is dispel this (barrier).”
This is why the cold-brew dashi recipe Kumahara teaches in class has minimal up-front preparation and lasts for two to three days in a fridge.
She says parents quickly come to realize that making dashi is not some complex, time-consuming experience. “They realize what they thought was an extra burden isn’t really, and it’s worth doing because homemade dashi really does add flavor compared to (instant).”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kumahara suspended her dashi-making classes from March through early June. They’re up and running again, and Kumahara says now that more people are staying at home, which includes spending more time in the kitchen, there’s a lot of comfort in making your own dashi.
“You can get a sense of security and satisfaction from just one dish, such as a simple miso soup, with a homemade dashi stock as its base.”
For more information, visit tyuusui.com. Dashi-making classes are held once or twice a month. Participants can contact Kumahara via email. Prices vary based on the venue and course content.