Do you ever get the feeling that chefs leave out their secret ingredients when they publish their recipes? Or perhaps you bought the cookbook at the restaurant but even when you follow the recipes exactly, they come out short of what you tasted at the restaurant? I would hazard to say that it is not so much that the ingredient is secret. Rather, its probably just hard to come by. Hon Dashi is one of those inconvenient ingredients, since its not widely available outside of Asia. In my own recipes, I will usually just insert something generic like chicken stock cube even when I would actually be using Hon Dashi pellets.
Well enough of that. I guess I’d better explain what ‘Dashi’ is first. Dashi is a primary stock usually made from dried kelp (Konbu) and dried skipjack tuna (Bonito). It is used everywhere in Japanese cooking, and you can think of Dashi as the equivalent of bouillon in classical Western cooking. How the stock is prepared is not crucial for our purposes, as all you need to know is you can make Dashi yourself by simply adding Hon-Dashi pellets to hot water. Please note that the ‘standard’ Hon Dashi does not contain the kelp component which makes it more flexible. You can use it on its own, boil it with Konbu, or use any other kind of vegetable to give it its second layer of flavour.
‘Hon’ by the way means ‘the real thing’, which I believe is a well deserved prefix. In addition to having a salty taste as one would expect from stock, Hon Dashi boasts a unique sweet and mildly smoky undertone. You can practically use it in any recipe which calls for chicken or vegetable stock since it isn’t fishy. In fact it doesn’t even taste of fish. There is also a newer variety of Hon Dashi made from dried scallops (conpoy) instead of bonito and it merits mention here. This scallop version has an intense shellfish flavour which is perfect for enhancing seafood dishes like Bouillabaisse and Seafood Risotto.
In my humble opinion, stock made from Hon Dashi is superior to any other type of instant stock that I have come across. Why does Hon Dashi have such a wonderful taste? I think it’s because of the double desiccation used in its manufacture. This is how I imagine it must be made: The key ingredients (i.e. the tuna or scallops) are first salt dried once over a long period, then rehydrated in boiling water to form a bullion. The solids are finally removed and the liquid is then re-dehydrated into pellets. This process extracts and removes the fishiness that sets in quickly when seafood is harvested, leaving a natural sweetness that is otherwise hard to isolate.
If you have the opportunity, do try using Hon Dashi stock in your cooking. Its perfect for making soups (check out my Consommé page). You can actually use it even if no stock is called for, as they come in small pellets instead of cubes. Try sprinkling on a pinch in place of salt. Either way, you will be adding that special hint of a flavour that will keep your dinner guests guessing as to what your secret ingredient is.
- No, I do not own any Ajinomoto shares (manufacturer of Hon Dashi) or have any other ulterior motive for recommending this stock – pun unintended.
- If you can’t find Hon Dashi, I have been told it is available at Amazon.com, in the grocery section.
- Keep your openned hon dashi sachets in the fridge, I just fold and clip the sachets with a paper clip. They can last for years this way.
- Sometimes the box is labelled Katsuo, which is just Japanese for dried bonito flakes.