There's much about this humble broth that even fans of fine Japanese cuisine often overlook

It is often referred to as the backbone of the cuisine, but despite dashi's intrinsic role in the Japanese culinary arts, there is no requirement for a master Japanese chef to be a dashi master. This might explain why many restaurants choose commercially available alternatives over freshly-brewed dashi—which is broadly understood as broth—while more established and upmarket places work with only two or three varieties.

The latter includes premium kaiseki restaurants laments head chef at Shangri-La's Nami Restaurant And Bar, Shigeo Akiba, who trained under dashi master Masami Honda of Nadaman in Yokohama, Japan. Dashi making, he adds with the help of a translator, is an art that, sadly, not many chefs practice. Now a dashi master in his own right, Akiba regularly utilises up to eight types of dashi throughout Nami’s seasonal menu.

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During a recently launched Dashi Appreciation Class he conducts as part of a four-course lunch menu on the last Saturday of each month, Akiba explains how dashi is commonly made from kombu (kelp), the extremely pricey katsuobushi (dried, smoked bonito), jako (baby sardines) and shiitake mushrooms or a combination of the aforementioned.

Chefs also use dashi made from mackerel, large sardine and flying fish, and depending on the dish they are being featured in, are combined to lend that uniquely savoury quality or give a boost of umami to miso soups, noodle dishes, donburi and chawanmushi, stews and simmered dishes, to name a few. The distinct yet subtle taste profile of urume (dried and smoked sardines) for example, is used to enhance the flavour of the dipping sauce for udon or soba dishes. A natural flavour enhancer, a bespoke blend may even be included in the recipe for the sauce used on sushi.  

The process of making dashi is equally varied and deceptively simple. Most prized, though, is the ichiban dashi, commonly referred to as the “first brew” and for good reason. The process starts with soaking quality kombu in water overnight, after which the kombu is removed, and the liquid simmered with a new batch of kombu for as long as the chef deems necessary. Katsuobushi is then added and left to steep for about 30 seconds. The liquid is then strained to yield a clear broth.

The “second brew” or niban dashi is the most commonly used and is made by adding water to the ingredients strained from the making of the first brew, and katsuobushi that has stripes of blood-rich muscles that run along the spine area of the fish. Unlike the first brew, this broth is brought to a boil then strained to be used in dishes like oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl), nikujaga (a meat and potato dish) and tamagoyaki. Surprisingly, though, the first brew, which undergoes a more delicate process, boasts a more complex and richly nuanced flavour profile, not to mention an almost sweet hit of umami that lingers.

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It is best savoured in a dish like Akiba’s soup of Hamaguri clam, served with eggplant, shimeiji mushrooms, carrot and tofu. The soup comprises ichiban dashi, a little mirin, sake, light shoyu and shio.

But here are other fine applications of dashi, including single-ingredient variations for that precise hit of flavour, found on Nami's current menu.

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