Some years ago, I wrote a post featuring the Japanese soup stock known as Dashi. In that post, I mentioned that Dashi could be a simple mushroom stock, or a stock made using just the seaweed called Kombu, or, more commonly, a more complex stock combining Kombu and the dried, smoky tuna known as Katsuobushi
Anyway, in my Katsuobushi post (see the above link), I showed several varieties of the proper fish product and one the ‘instant’ powdered versions. I was, it must be said, a bit scathing of the latter, indicating that it wasn’t, for several reasons, as good as the ‘real’ thing, but, while that is generally true, the same can be said for homemade chicken stock versus one made using bouillon cubes or extract. One uses homemade if that is practical but, sometimes, especially if only a little stock is needed, using an ‘instant’ substitute is perfectly acceptable…
Today, I thought I would take a little more detailed and closer look at the basic product, and also do a bit of a comparison of a few different brands. There are literally scores and scores of different instant dashi products to be found but the ones you see pictured here are three of the bonito tuna based ones that I have most commonly come across in my part of the world…
All three of the above varieties are Japanese products and, except in a few particulars, the major difference between them is the packaging. The product on the left gives you ten 4 gram packages, and you are told that each of them will make you about two and a half cups of dashi when added to hot water. The large package gives you two 120 gram packages, and the one on the left contains ten 10 gram pouches. The little jar is the same brand as the large box and the contents are loose. There is some variance between the amounts of stock equivalent amounts of the different products are supposed to make, but the differences are not very significant and I worked out a simple rule to the effect that a teaspoon of dashi powder will yield about two cups of decent strength dashi.
Here is look at the contents of one of the packages from the first product. I have not bothered to photograph the other two products because, other in slight differences in shade and the size of the granules, each looks pretty much like the other.
The constituent ingredients of each product are also very similar, although there are differences in the relative quantities of each. Salt and monosodium glutamate feature heavily, and there is a small amount of sugar used (glucose or lactose). Two of the packages clearly specify that ‘dried bonito powder’ is used, while the third (a little difficult to read as it is in Japanese script only), appears to have ‘fish sauce’ or ‘fish extract’ used, which suggests the same sort of thing. In addition to MSG, Disodium Inosinate is also used in these products. The chemical names (along with the anti-MSG hype) may sound a bit alarming, but both are essentially synthesized versions of naturally occurring substances. Even if sodium intake is a concern, the fact remains that these are flavoring products only and used in small quantities.
The appearance of the granules once mixed with water look pretty much like homemade dashi prepared from scratch, and all of the three sorts had the same basic appearance. There were, though, minor differences in taste…
The first package produced a very slightly stronger taste than the other two (I used a carefully measured teaspoon in each case) and the smoky quality was definitely more pronounced in this brand. The second was a little milder, and otherwise unremarkable, while the third was, in my opinion, just a little bit nicer. It was fairly mild, with a subtle smoky taste, but it also had the same faint marine taste you would get using fresh Kombu. I suppose, all things considered, I would buy the third brand as a preference but, in truth, the variations between the three are not that significant.
There is one thing I noticed about the instant product that does make it different from the real thing. After I taste-tested each brand, I poured the extra into a single container, and, once it cooled, I saw that some of the solids had precipitated out leaving some sediment at the moment. I don’t think anyone needs to be alarmed about this, or anything, but it is a difference that might be significant if making a chilled stock for some purpose.
Anyway, I used some of the leftover stock to make a very simple Miso soup, which is, I would say, one of the most popular uses for dashi outside of Japan. Here, I just re-warmed the stock and added in about 1 teaspoon of light miso per cup, some little cubes of tofu, and a little sliced scallion as garnish. The result was pretty decent and, overall, I’d have to say that, if tasting real dashi alongside the instant, you could likely notice a greater complexity and depth of flavor in the former. However, for a simple soup or braising medium, the ease and convenience of the instant sort makes it a pretty attractive substitute.