Monday, November 18, 2013

Dashi! Miso Soup!

Mr. Hawthorne was watching an episode 
of Mo Rocca's My Grandmother's Ravioli
and the granny was making miso soup.
Mr. Hawthorne must have miso soup now.
And I apparently have miso soup on my lens.

It's funny sometimes how things
put themselves together and work out.
My miso soup effort has been in the works for a while,
although I wasn't totally aware of it.

It all started several years ago when I was reading Jeffrey Steingarten's "It Must've Been Something I Ate."  Steingarten was in Shanghai and had the opportunity to visit the kitchen of a famous restaurant. Next to each chef was a table containing a dozen or so bowls of condiments and flavorings - dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, salt, sugar, hot chili oil, ground dried red pepper, broth, cooking oil, white pepper, black pepper, minced garlic, ginger, scallions, and, finally, a bowl of Gourmet Powder.  Steingarten never saw a restaurant kitchen without Gourmet Powder.  

What is Gourmet Powder?  It's the Chinese name for monosodium glutamate or MSG.  As Steingarten left the restaurant, a "deep and blinding insight" struck him -  Nobody in China has a headache!"  What some Americans have referred to as Chinese-Restaurant Syndrome - the MSG headache- doesn't exist in China, a nation long noted for having lots of Chinese restaurants.

Puzzled by all this, Steingarten researched.  The same chemical in its natural form has been used as a flavor enhancer at least since the 8th century.  First recorded in 797AD, kombu, or giant kelp, has been harvested and dried. The traditional Japanese seaweed broth, dashi, is cooked with kombu.  In 1908, a professor named Ikeda, interested in the distinct flavor of anything cooked or flavored with the broth, discovered that the active taste ingredient in kombu is glutamic acid.  This acid lends foods "a rich savory taste, a perception of thickness and mouthfulness, a harmonizing of flavors."  Ikeda named this taste "umami," Japanese for "deliciousness."  Eventually, umami has become accepted as a fifth basic, independent taste, joining the quartet of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  While the giant seaweed, kombu, has the largest concentration of glutamate, which is the naturally occurring form of MSG,  Steingarten was delighted to find that the second highest level is found in Parmesan cheese with tomato paste and sundried tomatoes right behind.  He notes he's never heard of a Parmesan Headache or Tomato-Paste Syndrome.

A few years after Ikeda's discovery, a second umami substance was found - isosinate or IMP.  IMP explained the savory taste found in Japanese broths made with dried bonito flakes.  In 1960, a third source of umami was discovered - guanylate, or GMP, which is found in high concentrations in shiitake mushrooms.

The three umami chemicals, Steingarten explains, were once thought of as flavor enhancers or potentiators, but it seems that synergy seems to be key.  When you add glutamate or IMP to other foods, the quantities of natural umami already present in the food is greatly enhanced and intensified.  This is why we sprinkle Parmesan on pizza and why we put ketchup on our fries and hamburgers and why the tomato is the most popular vegetable in the world.  (Although it's really a fruit.  Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.)

Steingarten continues:  "It also explains why dashi- the heady Japanese broth used to prepare nearly all boiled dishes and to flavor sauces and rice - is made simply and at the last minute from both dried bonito flakes (for their IMP) in combination with dried kombu (for its free glutamate), and sometimes has a few slices of shiitake floating on top.  In a country that raised very little meat until well into this century, the deeply, almost mystically, savory dashi was fundamental to the preparation of nearly all food.  Connoisseurs are said to judge a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its dashi."

Intrigued by all this, I decided I would, one day, make dashi.  And then I promptly forgot about it.  Until a few months back.

Fast-forward to July 2013 and my receipt of Food & Wine magazine.  That was a particularly good issue, since I read about my next culinary toy - the Gourmet Whip, which I use to make foams - Bleu Cheese foam dressing and foam batter for extraordinarily light onion rings.  There's an article in there about dashiDashi is an all-purpose stock and seasoning of traditional Japanese cooking, used in everything from fish-poaching liquids to salad dressings.  Typically, dashi is composed of only two ingredients: kombu seaweed and dried, fermented bonito, a tuna-like fish.

The author of the Food & Wine article, Daniel Duane, found out there are 3 levels of dashi:  "low-quality instant, made from a powdered mix; a more respectable version, made by steeping inexpensive kombu in hot water, along with bonito flakes sold in plastic bags (hana-katsuo); and finally, the high-end artisanal type, made with rare, expensive kombu and dried bonito purchased in whole, rock-hard filets known as katsuo-bushi and shaved into flakes right before cooking.  This last kind of dashi creates a profoundly transcendent broth of subtle flavor and delicate fragrance."

Duane then decided, rather ambitiously, to experiment with the artisanal dashi.  Unable to find katsuo-bushi even in San Francisco's Asian markets, he opted to make it himself.  Upon researching, he found that first he had to boil and debone bonito filets, then smoke the filets for six hours.  Tolerable enough so far.  Then he learned that he'd have to smoke the filets 15 times over the course of a month, scraping off the tar each time.  Then the filets needed to be sun-dried for several days, sprayed with mold culture, and left indoors for two more weeks to ferment.  After that, more scraping and sun-drying was involved.

The author then turned to the only Japanese-influenced chef he knew and ended up trading a wad of cash for an oblong hunk of dried, smoked, and fermented fish.  The chef remained vague about how he'd obtained the fish, but he was rather maniacal about all things dashi, having studied under one of the Masters, Yoshihiro Murata.  According to the author, "Murata uses only rishiri kombu, harvested at Kafuka beach on Rebun Island, off Hoadaido, not for one moment considering the utterly unacceptable rausu kombu from the nearby Shiretoko Peninsula, even though only about three experts on earth can tell the difference. Murata is one of many Japanese chefs eternally engaged in theological dashi disputes, occasionally under the umbrella of the Tokyo-based Umami Information Center, about whether katsuo-bushi is best with or without its chiaia, the dark meat near the blood line in a fresh bonito filet."

Duane took his fish home and went to work on it, first nearly breaking his Benriner mandoline to shave the katsuo-bushi filet. A microplane grater was out of the question.  Finally, Duane grabbed a carpenter's plane from his workshop and handily shaved the fish filet.   Following the formula his chef-friend had learned from Murata,  "This involved immersing precisely 30 grams of high-priced rishiri kimbu in 1.8 liters of Fiji Water, for its low mineral content, for 60 minutes at 140 degrees, as measured with a digital probe, and then removing the kombu, raising the temperature to 185°, killing the heat, adding 50 grams of just-shaved katsuo-bushi, steeping for 10 more seconds and then straining everything through a piece of flannel- with its fine hairs pointing upward, not downward, no matter what."

Now, with all of this under the belt, fast forward to the other day when Mr. Hawthorne was watching Mo Rocca on My Grandmother's Ravioli.  Miyoko McPherson was making Miso Soup and Mr. H. wanted some.  Miso Soup uses dashi as the base.

So it seems that the planets have aligned themselves and it's time for me to make dashi and Miso Soup.  It.Was.Meant.To.Be.

I'm making Miso Soup today.  I drew from three different sources:  David Duane's article in Food & Wine (July 1013), "In Search of the Ultimate Flavor Boost;"  a book I had, entitled Japanese
Cooking - A Simple Art
,  and an on-line source,

I'll be adding tofu to my broth
for more tastelessness, 
so first I weighted the tofu with an iron skillet
to get the moisture out.

I have a package of extremely appetizing dried seaweed -
dashi kombu.

And I have a package of katsuo-bushi.

I covered approximately 8 grams of kombu
with a quart of cold, filtered water
and let it stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Next, I brought the water to a bare simmer
over medium low heat.
You want it to take about 15 minutes.
Never let the water come to a boil
or the kombu will release less appealing flavors.

Remove pan from heat and discard the kombu.

Next, I added in the bonito flakes - 25 grams.
Bring just to a simmer.

Immediately strain the dashi through a fine sieve
 and use immediately.

Now for the miso soup.
Soybean paste!

I spooned the miso paste into a small bowl and ...

...  poured boiling water over it.
Stir to dissolve completely.

Then pour the miso into the dashi broth.

I have shredded Chinese cabbage,
tofu (!!),
watercress from a pot on the deck,
 scallions from my garden,
and shiitaki mushrooms.

Complex and delicate flavors.
I'm sorry though.
I just cannot get on the tofu bandwagon.


zzzadig said...

Now look up oshitashi and use the Bonito flakes. Miso soup and oshitashi....yum.

Rosie Hawthorne said...

Zzzadig, when I looked up oshitashi, I found I had already bookmarked it. Thanks for the reminder!

Marilyn said...

Thank you for the lesson on dashi. Quite interesting.

It is my understanding, as well as my experience, that tofu takes on the flavors of what it is marinated in or cooked in. For instance, I will sometimes order a grilled spicy tofu bowl when on campus and it is divine. I love the chewy texture and the flavor that the tofu has from the marinade.