If you ask me, a soup can only ever be as good as its stock. Homemade stock has a way of elevating even the simplest broth to something spectacular. They understand this in Japan, so plenty of attention is given to making the very best stock (called "dashi" in Japanese cooking) possible. A classic dashi invariably contains fresh or dried bonito, a deliciously pungent fish responsible for much of what makes Japanese food delicious. Other ingredients vary with each house recipe. You can find anything from pork bones to shrimp heads stuffed into a Japanese dashi pot. Momofuku in New York is known to make a dashi with bacon. The commonality you might be noticing here is a heavy reliance on fish and meat for flavor.
When you make a vegetarian or vegan dashi, you have to rustle up your best plant-based savory and umami ingredients. It's also important to include an element of the sea. You might think that's impossible for a vegan soup, but not so! Kombu, a thick, rubbery dried seaweed is excellent way to "fish up" your vegan dashi. It carries a decidedly fishy, ocean-like aroma, and has a way of making dashi taste heavier and richer than it would be with out. I also like to use plenty of stinky mushrooms. Shitake are my favorite, dry or fresh, but any shroom will do.
To make the broth a little more interesting I add some leek. Leek has a light onion taste, sort of like scallion, but it's much sturdier, making it better choice for dashi-making. When working with leeks, it's really important to peel them completely apart and rinse out every crevasse. They tend to horde soil between their leaves, so it isn't unusual to find sand buried all the way in the center of the stalk. I usually cut the bottom of the leek off, then slice it down its center. After that, fill the sink with cold water, and dunk the leek inside. Take the leek completely apart, washing each piece carefully, then drain and rinse them.
So what do you do with dashi once you've got it? Dashi is the base for a huge range of soups and sauces. Miso soup is the simplest way to enjoy it. Just heat 1 cup of dashi, mix in a teaspoon of miso paste, add diced tofu, sliced scallions, and a few pieces of dry wakame seaweed. A dash of soy sauce or a pinch of salt can be added for extra flavor. I use Dashi as a base for tempura sauce, udon noodle soup, ramen, and homemade teriyaki sauce.
Makes about 4 quarts
- 2 cups fresh shitake mushrooms (or 1 cup dried)
- 4 strips of dried kombu
- 1 - 2 leeks, washed and separated
- 4 quarts cold water
Combine the solid ingredients in a large stock pot, then cover with cold water. Bring the pot to just under a boil on high heat, then reduce to low. Simmer for 60 minutes. Allow the stock to cool enough for handling, then strain it through cheesecloth or fine mesh.