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? :))