Oh noes, dashi is trendy now

In the past few years, the popularity of Japanese food has exploded, with sushi leading the way. You might think that as the owner of a blog that is mainly dedicated to Japanese cooking, I’d be ecstatic about that.

I am happy, sure. It’s gratifying to gradually see the cuisine of my birthplace being recognized as something special. But on the other hand, I’m more than a bit skeptical. I wonder if, in a few years, hipster ‘foodies’ are going to turn their noses up at Japanese cuisine. “That was so naughties” they might be saying sometime in 2015, as they tuck into the latest craze for - I don’t know what.

There’s still a lot of misinformation bandied about about Japanese cooking. Take this article in this week’s New York Times Food Section, about how trendy chefs who are trained in traditional French techniques are using dashi more and more. It’s great to see this fundamental base of Japanese cooking (it’s so important that it’s the first basic Japanese recipe I ever posted here, almost 5 years ago) being embraced by Western chefs, but why the need to describe it as a substitute for meat flavor? Dashi certainly did not develop as a way for compensating for a lack of meat. There’s a pretty simple reason why kombu (a seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried fish shavings) are the most popular combination for making dashi: they both come from the sea. If you look at a map of Japan, it’s quite obvious why this would have come about. Even before the eating of four-legged animals was formally banned in the late 17th century by the Tokugawa Shogunate (生類哀れみの令), the staple protein for most Japanese people was fish, not meat - simply because most people lived near the coasts than inland. This may be more obvious if one looks at other popular dashi ingredients, like niboshi (small dried fish).

In any case, it’s no surprise that dashi has become popular. It’s so much easier to prepare than a meat based stock, and the base ingredients are easy to store. It’s so handy to make that any home cook can make a dashi as good as that of professional chefs - and many do, even though even easier to use dashi granules are available. (Do you know many people who still maintain a stock pot? I don’t.)

I just hope that the use of dashi doesn’t turn out to be a fad, along with the rest of Japanese cuisine. But if it happens, I won’t be surprised, given the fickleness and the food-as-fashion thinking that drives much of the culinary world.

(Footnote: Someone reminded me that Swiss cuisine has been a big victim of food-trendiness. First there was fondue, which was wildly popular in the ’70s and then became oh-so-totally passé after that. Then there was the mid-’90s craze for making piles of food on top of rösti, the crispy potato pancake that is a staple of the German parts of Switzerland. What do we call trend-chasing food dilettantes - foodistas? Food victims? :))

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I agree that food fadishness

I agree that food fadishness is somewhat eye roll inducing, but two points:

One, it is a nice way of introducing new things. And after the fad fades, items from it tend to stick around or go mainstream. It’s just no longer special (and de-exoticizing foreign cultures is a good thing generally, isn’t it?

Two, food fadishness works both ways with Japan. As many trends are imported into the country as exported! And trends get old there quite quickly. :)

anon. | 16 October, 2008 - 03:16

I love that people are

I love that people are becoming more familiar with a cuisine that I love, but like you some of the misinformation can be frustrating. Also frustrating is the lumping of all Asian cuisines together when they are so very different. Here’s to perpetuating the use of dashi!

Fuji Mama | 16 October, 2008 - 04:31

No doubt, Japanese society

No doubt, Japanese society is awfully faddy (if that’s a word). But on the other hand you don’t get the insufferable ‘that is so yesterday’ attitude you get with some foodistas in other places.

maki | 16 October, 2008 - 05:47

Oy...

I don’t like the idea that food can be trendy - I like food that tastes good, and it doesn’t change with how “IN” it is at one time or another. I don’t think Japanese food can become passe - I mean, it’s been trendy/hip/in for what seems like forEVER here in NYC (ok, maybe 10-15 years, when it went from “EW, you eat sushi?” to “Let’s go get sushi”). I don’t know. If it’s good, it’ll last the test of time… and Japanese food is good ;) This is where I always feel it’s better to never be completely hip/trendy… that way you can never be out!! :)

Yvo | 16 October, 2008 - 16:38

My favorite summation of food trendism

What happened to Brie and Chablis?
Both Brie and Chablis used to be
The sort of thing everyone ate
When goat cheese and Napa Merlot
Weren’t purchased by those in the know,
And monkfish was thought of as bait.

And why did authorities ban
From restaurants all coq au vin?
And then disappeared sole meuniere,
Then banished, with little ado,
Beef Wellington—and Stroganoff, too.
Then cancelled the chocolate eclair.

Then hollandaise sauce got the boot,
And kiwis stopped being the fruit
That every chef loved to include
Like quiches, or coquilles St. Jacques,
They turned into something to mock—
The fruit that all chic chefs eschewed.

You miss, let’s say, trout amandine?
Take hope from some menus I’ve seen:
Fondue has been spotted of late
And—yes, to my near disbelief—
Tartare not from tuna, but beef.
They all may return. Just you wait.

Calvin Trillin, “What Happened to Brie and Chablis?”, The New Yorker, September 8, 2003, p. 69

Betsy | 16 October, 2008 - 17:08

Hooray for Calvin Trillin!

Thanks for posting that Betsy :)

maki | 17 October, 2008 - 14:23

sushi 4 life

I’m that sushi has moved beyond “stylish” and will persist, in North America at least, until the ingredients become unavailable to us. Don’t worry too much about your beloved dashi either; it’s a simple solution for fish stock and has so many practical applications it will likely be around for the long haul.

emily | 16 October, 2008 - 18:53

Japanese Food..

Interesting idea…We are looking for more Japanese sushi recipes as well as any other type of Japanese food…

Possibly you can post some of your recipes on recipebuddys.com

we have had a lot of requests for them…thanks
Andy

www.recipebuddys.com

Andy Abraham | 17 October, 2008 - 10:12

Umami

O hai Maki! Wow, I haven’t been around here in a while. Is in crunch mode and I’m trying to crawl out of bed.

The article does sound a bit off-puting, but I suppose people can only speak of something new with reference to something already familiar. Maybe dumbed down a bit to reach a wider audience. But yeah I don’t think chefs would use it as meat-flavour substitute, but more as new source of umami (but with all the comparisons in the article, maybe not). I don’t think this is just a fad, since it is simple to make. I’m reaching the end of The Elements of Cooking (no dashi in it), and there are mentions of fish sauce as a source of umami.

What I hope is just a fad are all those all-you-can-eat sushi places here in Montreal. Pre-sliced fish to speed up assembly doesn’t seem right (and doesn’t taste as fresh). -_- friends love the quantity…

Zelnox | 17 October, 2008 - 13:33

Hey Zelnox - long time no

Hey Zelnox - long time no see! I hope you’re doing well :)

maki | 17 October, 2008 - 14:24

Re: Food Trends

It is indeed a conundrum. I live in LA, and 23 of Los Angeles Magazines’ annual “Top 100 Restaurants” last year were Sushi bars. It will be interesting to see who sticks around for another year or two. Also, thank you Betsy for your great post! Well said! I remember when Thai was all the rage around 20 years ago. Although exposure to new cuisines is part of our continued “globalization”, there are plenty of opportunities for people to learn about new flavors as well. We’ve come a long way since the “#2 Tempura & Chicken Teriyaki Combo” And although umami might be all the rage right now, trends do have the opportunity to introduce people to new flavors that they otherwise might never have known about. The food “fashionistas” and “celebrity chefs” will eventually hop onto the next fad, but there will also be those who have been educated to a whole new world of flavors because of the exposure. For instance, I hung onto my original Fondue Pot. Now it’s considered “retro-hip” and vintage.

Karla | 17 October, 2008 - 22:10

Japanese Food Abound..

I work at Saltwater, a Michael Mina 4 diamond restaurant at MGM Grand in Detroit. Since we opened, we have had a Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass on the menu. At the beginning, it had scallop mousse/ginger/lime dumplings, shiitake mushroom consomme, baby bok choy, and the miso/soy/sake/brown sugar marinated then pan roasted sea bass. We just changed the menu for the season, and the same bass is now served over house made nori udon with pickled daikon, shaved radish, cucumber sprouts, and a dashi with a rather strong tilt toward bonito.

It is perfect for the autumn/winter months; dashi is perfect confort food with those big fat udon!

DGibb | 18 October, 2008 - 16:05

Oh noes, dashi trendiness

I hear you Maki. I grew up eating Japanese food in some good restaurants, and then got some cookbooks and started making it for myself (though I wasn’t raised with it in the home). I guess you can never predict what the next foodie trend is going to be, but my feeling is that I was making dashi before the trend, and will continue to do it after the trend. If the trend means that others will learn the goodness of Japanese food, so much the better. If not, the rest of us will carry on. But I definitely understand your unease. :(

Winslow | 18 October, 2008 - 22:01

Food on rosti?

Hmm… Okay, I never heard of that “fad”… it’s an interesting idea, though. Stacking various foodstuffs on top of rosti, would be…

Wait.

That’s rather like…

Oh, LORD— we’re talking Swiss Okonomiyaki here! ^_^

Robert Haynie | 19 October, 2008 - 15:45

I don’t know that I’d be

I don’t know that I’d be too, too worried about Japanese food as a whole becoming “passé.”

I mean, sushi and all that first became really trendy in the 80’s and nineties, and 20 years later, it’s not trendy: it’s standard fare. I live Alberta, land of beef and cowboys, but I still eat decent sushi on a regular basis. There’s miso and nori in my local grocery store, one of the most popular fast food restaurants in my city (for about the past 10 years) specializes in donburi.

I see the newfound popularity of dashi more as chefs discovering a new ingredient, which in time will become more everyday and common-place, not out-of-style.

KatyBelle | 19 October, 2008 - 19:34

house made nori udon?!

Wow! That sounds amazing! I want that recipe!

And as far as the trendiness goes, I agree, it’ll just become common and those of us who now have to scrounge the corners of stinky markets will be able to find our goodies everywhere!

erisgrrrl | 21 October, 2008 - 04:44

Ta, must dashi

(sorry couldn’t resist)

It’s always weird to me when something I’ve been using/doing for years becomes a fad. Fortunately when I started using it, it was pretty easy to find even in Albuquerque. Now I’m in the Bay Area and you can sometimes even find it in regular supermarkets here.

/I was into dashi before it got famous

Shannon | 31 October, 2008 - 04:45

Chefs...

I find the whole grand-chef food fad culture of today completely bizarre. Surely cooking is not about chefs but about food… The fads do not work anyway - I have yet to find a sushi shop in London that has sushi as good as a “fast food” restaurant in Japan. And would you believe it, one of the sushi chains here in the UK does not put salt to edamame. Now that is a disgrace.

In any case, I am off to try out your recipe for glazed sweet potatoes! :)

VeronikaB | 10 November, 2008 - 17:20

trendy dashi?

Well it’s going to happen sooner or later. There’s pros and cons. In our society nowaday, the world is such a smaller place so food from other countries are more accessible. So yeah, certain ethnic food will become “trend” but trends come and go.

It will happen with certain ethnic food like “Pho” for Vietnamese. I mean a couple of decades ago Chinese food was a new fad. ^_^

Still, I think learning about food from all around helps you become a better cook. I like food so I really don’t think it’s a bad thing. Professional chefs travel all over the world to learn new ways of cooking and new ingredients and such. So, I really don’t think it’s a bad thing.

iamallthatiam | 3 December, 2008 - 22:51

Dashi is my favorite stock.

Since I started working at an Asian market 15 months ago (resigned yesterday) I’ve discovered so many great ingredients, I don’t think dashi is ever going to disappear. I’m not one for fish done the western way, but I do love sushi, and I do love dashi. its’ beautiful smoky (almost meaty) aroma works a wonderful game of contrast with its sea brine flavor. Dashi is not going to disappear because it is everything food should be.
In general I think that we are all moving towards a more global conscience because technology connects us all, and this reflects in the awareness to different cultures and cuisines. but that’s the macro… on the specifics, Dashi rocks. :)

anon. | 6 December, 2008 - 16:54

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