An Acquired Taste of Japan – Kusaya!

The tradition of eating fermented fish spans cultures from Scandinavia to Europe to Asia. We know of famous examples like garum, from ancient Rome, where small local fish were salted and fermented until they almost liquified. And of the famous Swedish surströmming, where Baltic herring are caught in the spring time, lightly salted and fermented in barrels for months.

Japan’s rich food culture, which prizes fish in all of its varieties, is famous for kusaya, a fermented, dried fish that has a mild taste but a most-definitely acquired smell!

Kusaya is made from small flying fish or mackerel. When made using traditional methods, the freshly caught fish is descaled by hand and then flayed open. The bones, entrails and blood are removed, and the inside of the fish is scrubbed many times in fresh water to remove any remnants. The opened fish is then soaked in a salt brine called “kusaya-jiru” for about 24 hours, then dried in the open air and hot sun for up to two days, before it’s stored in jars. Kusaya is unique in that the brine used to begin the fermentation process is the key to preserving the fish. Every family that makes kusaya in a traditional fashion closely guards their brine recipe. The brines are made of water and small amounts of salt to begin with, then reused for each batch of fish, with some brines lasting as long as 100 years! The brine smells of decay, similar to feces, and an overgrowth of bacteria, lending kusaya the aroma that many who have not grown up with this dish find hard to tolerate.

Fermenting fish is a wonderful way to preserve it and to augment and release the umami in the flesh. The fermentation process for kusaya uses the microorganisms in the salt brine to release glutamates from the proteins, sugars and fats in the fish’s meat. These glutamates are the building blocks of umami, the fifth taste in Japanese food culture, and a building block of dashi. Many Japanese eat kusaya with sake or other alcoholic beverages, as it is high in protein and calcium and pairs well with sharper flavors.

Kusaya can be purchased almost anywhere in Japan, most generally in canned or packaged form. But if you’re lucky enough to visit a traditional kusaya maker, overrule the smell around you and try this delicacy!

And don’t forget to share your story with us!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Unlock Umami-Rich Dashi

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“Dashi is a subtle broth with the capacity to enhance and intensify the flavor of those foods with which it is cooked or blended. That ability is locked within kombu (kelp) and katsuo bushi (smoky bonito fish flakes), the two ingredients used to make this basic sea stock: Both are both rich in water-soluble glutamates.” – Elizabeth Andoh, author of Washoku and Kansha, and leading expert on Japanese cuisine

If umami represents the soul of Japanese cooking, then dashi certainly represents the heart, enhancing and harmonizing the flavors in many Japanese dishes. This month, we continue our series about umami with a tutorial about how to make dashi. We also feature recipes that use dashi, showcasing the breadth of dishes that rely on this essential ingredient.

In classical Japanese cooking, dashi is commonly made with water, kelp (konbu) and the shavings of dried, smoked skipjack tuna (bonito flakes or katsuobushi). Two types of dashi can be prepared from one batch of ingredients: ichiban dashi and niban dashi. Ichiban dashi is the first extraction of umami from the konbu and katsuobushi, resulting in a pale, clear and delicately fragrant broth. Niban dashi is the second extraction of umami from the leftover konbu and katsuobushi used to make ichiban dashi and results in bolder flavor. Japanese cooks use both types of dashi to flavor specific types of dishes and to fully utilize the ingredients without waste.

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Ichiban dashi is simple to make, as long as a few techniques are followed with precision. To extract the full flavor-enhancing properties of the glutamate-rich ingredients, start with cold water. Place the water in a saucepan, along with a square piece of konbu. Heat the water over medium heat until just before it boils, when bubbles start to appear along the bottom and sides of the pan. Remove the konbu, and let the water come to a full boil. Removing the konbu at this precise time prevents the glutamates extracted from the seaweed from becoming bitter due to prolonged exposure to high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool. Then, add the katsuobushi to the saucepan and heat the mixture again until it reaches a boil. Turn the heat off and let the bonito flakes steep in the liquid. Finally, strain the liquid through several layers of paper towel or cheesecloth, into a clean glass container, so that no small pieces of fish or seaweed are left in the broth to muddle the flavor.

This step-by-step recipe for Ichiban Dashi notes the actual proportions, temperatures and cooking times…and we know you’ll find it enjoyable to make!

Niban dashi is made using the already-cooked seaweed and fish left over from preparing ichiban dashi. Add both ingredients back into the saucepan, add a few cups of water, simmer the mixture for several minutes over low heat, then strain.

In the case of both ichiban and niban dashi, the keys to creating the best dashi lie in extracting and preserving the glutamates from the konbu and katsuobushi. Prolonged cooking, excessively high heat and inadequate straining can result in a dull and fishy broth that sullies, rather than enhances, the dishes that rely on dashi to infuse them with umami.

Ichiban dashi is used in many types of dishes, from soups to appetizers to salads. We have some great recipes that use ichiban dashi on our website, like Tofu Misoshiru, Shrimp Ball Broth, Hiyashi Chawanmushi and Crab & Cucumber Sunomono.

Bringing out the flavor of fresh, high-quality ingredients using umami-rich dashi is at the core of Japanese culinary tradition. We encourage you to make your own dashi, and as always, would love to hear about your experience!

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Umami and Dashi

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Last month we began our exploration of umami, the “delicious taste” discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Umami is the rich flavor imparted from foods that contain high levels of glutamates, a type of amino acid that, when ingested, tells the brain that the food the body is about to receive is savory, desirable and full of protein.

Umami is at the heart of a Japanese cooking liquid called dashi, which was studied by Dr. Ikeda and which forms the foundation of many Japanese dishes. Dashi is an all-purpose, light stock made simply from an umami-rich ingredient and water. Its role in Japanese cuisine can’t be overemphasized, as it is used to season simmered and steamed dishes, flavor soups and create a base for marinades.

While preparing dashi is simple, it requires a meticulous attention to detail.

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Top left, shaved Bonito flakes; bottom, konbu

When made from scratch, dashi is made from clean, soft water. Various ingredients are added to the water to give it flavor and to impart umami. The classic way to prepare dashi is to make ichibandashi, which typically consists of simmering shaved bonito flakes—dried, smoked skipjack tuna—and dried konbu kelp in water. While this type of dashi is used to prepare many Japanese dishes, many cooks also use variations of the classic dashi in modern Japanese cooking. Dashi made from dried shiitake mushrooms, dried baby anchovies or sardines, dried scallops, or even just konbu or only bonito flakes have become common additions to the Japanese cook’s dashi repertoire.

When making dashi at home, it’s important to use high-quality ingredients that have been air dried, avoiding frozen ones, as freezing alters the flavor and aroma of the ingredients. The best quality bonito comes in stick form and is approximately six-to-eight inches in length. Bonito sticks look like dense, brown hunks of wood that have an ash-white coating. The sticks are made by filleting skipjack tuna, boiling the fillets, then removing the skin and bones from the fish. The fish is smoked multiple times to dry it and to preserve the richness in the fish’s flavor. After, the dried fish is cultured to continue its preservation, and then finally, dried in the open air. When two sticks of bonito are struck together, they should make a hollow sound, like musical instruments! Dried bonito sticks are then shaved using an appliance similar to a mandoline, called a katsuobushi kezuri, and result in pink curls of fish.

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Konbu harvesting

Vegetarian dashi is commonly made using dried konbu or shiitake mushrooms, again with both ingredients of the highest quality. The most prized type of konbu is harvested from the cold waters off of the northern coast of Hokkaido. These giant kelp have wide, thick leaves and a rich amber color. They are harvested, rinsed in sea water and hung out to air dry. Once dried, the konbu will have a distinctive whitish coat, made up of natural sea salts and minerals, which holds much of the seaweed’s flavor. The dried konbu is simply wiped with a damp cloth and then it’s ready to use in making dashi. Simmering dried shiitake mushrooms also makes a vegetarian version of dashi, one with a darker color and more intense flavor.

Cooks often make their dashi from scratch, but when pressed for time, flavorful, high-quality instant, dashi products can be found at Japanese or Asian grocery stores. Modern cooks often keep both as staples in their pantries, giving them versatile options for this foundational ingredient in Japanese cooking.

We’ll share recipes about how to make dashi in our next blog post, so stay tuned! And as always, we’d love to hear how you’ve made dashi, so leave us a comment.

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  The Science of Umami

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The essential ingredients of Japanese cooking—sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso—are primary ingredients, but how do they influence taste? Does ryori no sa shi su se so actually mean flavor, or are they the building blocks of the unique flavors of Japanese food?

In our post this month, we explore umami, what it’s made of and its essential role in gastronomy around the world.

Umami was first discovered in a measurable way by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University, now the University of Tokyo, in 1908. Dr. Ikeda, a chemist, theorized that there must be a reason why kombu dashi stock, used in many Japanese dishes, imparted such a rich, savory taste to food. In his quest to understand why, Dr. Ikeda discovered that kombu, the type of seaweed used in preparing dashi stock, was high in glutamates, a type of amino acid that creates a savory taste with a full mouthfeel. Dr. Ikeda’s discovery was followed by those of Shintaro Kodama, who discovered a ribonucleotide called inosine monophosphate, and of Akira Kuninaka, who discovered the ribonucleotide called guanosine monophosphate. These three substances, when absorbed by the taste buds on the tongue, creates a biochemical signal that tells the brain that the food is savory and full of protein, an important human evolutionary adaptation that aided in determining whether a food was safe and desirable to eat.

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Tsukudani , a side dish, made with umami-packed kombu (photo by Jun Owada)

Since the discovery of salt approximately in 5,000 BCE, the tastes of foods have been categorized into seven categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, astringent and umami. Different cultures have used a subset of these seven tastes as part of their gustatory culture. For example, European culture generally used the first four tastes. Indian culture uses six of the seven. And, before umami was discovered, Japanese culture only recognized four of the seven tastes. Dr. Ikeda coined the term umami, from the Japanese root words “umai” meaning delicious and “mi” meaning taste, and since its modern discovery, umami has become known as the fifth taste in Japanese cooking tradition. While some cultures might only use a subset of the seven tastes in their traditions, they actually use umami as part of their flavor profiles, because glutamates, inosine and guanosine are compounds found in a broad variety of food, everything from seaweed, fish, shellfish, beef, pork, eggs and chicken to mushrooms, tomatoes, cabbage, soybeans, yeast, milk and cheese. Food cultures across the world use these ingredients, and when combined with the other tastes, create savory flavors that are more intense than alone.

The inclusion of cured meat, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese make this pasta dish rich in umami flavor

The inclusion of cured meat, tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese make this pasta dish rich in umami flavor

Combining umami ingredients is done in many well-known, familiar recipes… tomato sauce topped with parmesan cheese, sautéed mushrooms, broth and vegetables. Savory flavor becomes more intense when a glutamate component (such as fish or seaweed) is combined with an inosine or guanosine component (such as mushrooms) or simply with table salt. Ancient Romans created garum, a fish paste, that was used as an umami component to many early Italian dishes. In more modern times, American cooks created ketchup, also full of umami and made with tomatoes, garlic, onions and vinegar, and Australians have created Vegemite, a fermented yeast paste full of umami.

The intensity of all flavors in food is increased when an umami ingredient is introduced. And umami is one of the most important elements of Japanese food, especially in dashi. We’ll explore this in more detail next month. Stay tuned, and as always, we’d love to hear your experiences with umami!

 

Main photo by Sage Ross

Essentials of Japanese Cooking:  Miso

We continue our Essentials of Japanese Cooking series this month with a feature on miso… the so in ryori no sa shi su se so. Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans, salt, either rice or barley, and a fermentation starter called koji. Used in miso soup, as a marinade, in dressings and sauces and a variety of other dishes, miso is an important staple in the Japanese pantry.

Miso is said to have originated in China, as early as the 4th century BCE. It was introduced to the people of Japan by Buddhist monks who traveled from China and brought many new ideas that inspired and informed Japanese food culture. The way Japanese people began to produce miso refined it into a few varieties, each with a distinctive flavor and nutritional profile, texture and umami (the rich and savory taste of glutamate-based foods).

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Four main varieties of Japanese miso are available at most grocery stores in Japan, along with a few specialty gourmet types. The main varieties include rice or ‘kome’ miso, which is the most commonly consumed variety, barley or ‘mugi ‘miso, pure soybean or ’mamemiso, and blended ’awasemiso, made with two or three types of other miso pastes. Each of these pastes are fermented from a few weeks up to three years, and the lighter varieties are more mildly flavored than the darker ones.

Specialty miso pastes including hatcho miso, an all-soybean paste with a medium sweet/strength/saltiness profile, saikyo miso, a golden yellow paste with a naturally sweet, low salt flavor, and moromi miso, a chunky miso with the grains of rice or barley only partially crushed. Each of these specialty miso pastes are used in particular dishes, and not in general preparations such as miso soup or grilled fish.

Miso is high in protein, the B vitamins, enzymes, Vitamin E, fiber, lecithin, isoflavones, peroxidase inhibitors and prostaglandins–all of which may help to nourish and regulate the body. Miso was a critical component of Japanese diets during lean times and famines, and it is still consumed almost daily by people in Japan.

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Miso soup

Traditionally, miso soup is enjoyed first thing in the morning, as part of a Japanese breakfast, to cleanse and nourish the body. (We have a great recipe for tofu misoshiru on our website!) The soup is made using a miso koshi, or small metal strainer, to create an even, smooth broth. Miso is also used in marinades and as a glaze for meat, seafood and vegetables, but must always be added to a dish either before or at the tail end of cooking, so the beneficial nutrients and the delicate flavor in the fermented paste are not destroyed by heat.

Miso is most often used in marinades, sauces and dressings. When used as a marinade, miso helps to breakdown the proteins in fish and poultry, infusing them with umami and drawing out any acidity or bitterness from the animal flesh. Salmon and cod marinated in miso and then broiled are popular preparations for these healthful oily fish. Miso-Marinated Chicken Kushiyaki is a great way to broil chicken. When used in sauces and dressings, miso can be mixed with mayonnaise, ginger, sesame oil, honey, citrus and even spicy sriracha sauce. Miso is even used occasionally in simmered nimono dishes, called miso-ni, in which miso is blended with dashi, mirin, soy sauce and fresh ginger and then used to cook various meat and vegetables.

One of our favorite recipes using miso is Beef Miso and Rice on Salad Leaf. The miso is used to impart a rich flavor to the sautéed ground beef and rice! Try it and tell us how it worked for you.

In our next post, we’ll discuss cooking with sake and mirin, and give you some other great recipes to try out! As always, we’d love to hear about your experiences as a beginner with Japanese cooking, so leave us a comment below.