Japanese basics: the essence of Japanese flavor, in a bottle

Note: Despite my enthusiasm for this mixture back in 2004, I no longer make this. I found it wasn't as versatile and usable-all-the-time as I thought. Instead, I make kaeshi periodically, and make as much dashi as I need for a few days and put that in the refrigerator instead. The recipe remains here anyway - you may find it more useful than I did. It just shows that we don't stay the same as cooks!

I’ve got an amazing bottle in my refrigerator now. It’s filled with a mixture that forms the base for just about any sort of Japanese food. It takes all the drudgery out of making a clear soup, or a Japanese style stew, or the dipping sauce for noodles. I can’t live without it anymore.

No this is not some amazing new product. It’s just a simple mixture that can be made in about 20 minutes, but it really is a great “essence of Japanese flavor”. It was in a Japanese magazine my mother brought for me last month. If you like Japanese food, you might want to make a bottle of this too. It will keep for up to three months in a closed container in the refrigerator.

It is simplicity itself to make, but some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar to you. You can get them all at a Japanese food shop.

  • Soy sauce. You will need regular dark soy sauce for this.
  • Mirin. This is labeled as “sweet rice wine” or “fortified rice wine”. It’s used strictly for cooking.
  • Sake. Again, you don’t need an expensive bottle, but do get one you won’t mind drinking.
  • Dried Bonito flakes (katsuobushi) - this can be a bit expensive, but is really essential. Be sure to keep it stored in an air-tight container. Mine is stocked in the freezer.
  • Dried konbu seaweed. This comes in big sheets. Cut up the sheets with some scissors into about 10 cm / 3 inch lengths for ease of use. (Don’t confuse this with dried wakame seaweed, which is quite different.)

To make the essence, combine 1 1/2 cups of soy sauce, 1 cup of mirin, 1 1/2 cups of sake, about 3 pieces of konbu, and a huge handful of the bonito flakes in a pan. Bring to the boil then lower the heat and simmer it gently until the liquid is reduced to about 2/3rds. Let it cool, then strain through a fine sieve and store in a jar or bottle in the refrigerator.

That’s all there is to it! You can use this as a sauce for vegetables, or tofu, or meat…add a bit of sugar to make it a teriyaki sauce…add water or basic Japanese stock to make a dipping sauce for cold noodles (soba or udon, etc)…add hot stock or water to make a soup for hot noodles…add some lemon juice or rice vinegar plus oil to make a Japanese style salad dressing….and on and on. It really is great stuff!

Example: to make chicken (or pork, or beef..) teriyaki, saute a piece of boneless chicken (either breast or thigh) until browned on both sides. Add the essence and optionally a little sugar, and cook on high until the essence has been reduced to a dark, rather sticky sauce. Delicious!

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