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!

Filed under:  basics japanese sauce

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This is a wonderful idea--we love Japanese food and time-saving tips! I've done this pre-mixing technique with spices & muffin dry ingredients but never thought of doing sauces! Very handy indeed!

hi maki, thanks for the tip! how long can this keep in the refrigerator for?

oops, sorry, noticed your note on how long it would keep for in the post itself. apologies! will make this soon :)

Better than Emeril's Essence. ;) Thanks for the recipe-- I will definitely have to keep a bottle on hand at home.

Hi, thanks for the recipe! but there's onething i don't quite understand... how big u cut up the konbu sheets. do u cut them into 10cm squares?

Yep, I usually cut the dried konbu about 10cm long for easy storage (then I double-bag them, divide into about 10-piece lots, and store the extras in the freezer.)

Sorry, I've read the article a few times, and your response to the question about cutting up the konbu sheets -- and I still don't understand.

Do you cut the konbu into 10 cm by 10 cm squares, or into 10 cm wide strips by whatever length the konbu leaf is? Which?

Also, you suggest adding basic Japanese stock to the essence, to make noodle soup. But as the basic Japanese stock is bonito flakes, konbu and water (and bonito flakes and konbu are already in the essence) why not just dilute the essence with hot water?

I guess I'll start with the short answer: cut the kombu into 10cm long pieces, if the leaves themselves are reasonably wide and thick enough. (If the leaves are poor and thin and papery, which can be if the kombu is a cheap kind, then you'd want more. If you want to weigh it, for this recipe you will want to aim for at least 3 grams of kombu, preferably 5 or more.)

And sure, you can just use the essence on its own with water and it will be very good. Using with dashi will be even better (richer fuller flavor.)

Following is the long answer which you can ignore :)

Kombu is a natural product - it's basically long, leathery leaves. So cutting 10cm x 10cm squares is a bit difficult. As a general guideline it's convenient to cut the leaves that they come as in to 10cm long (give or take a cm or so) for storing and usage.

You can't really over-use kombu though - you can use a whole leaf if you are inclined to, and your budget allows, and you'll get lots of umami out of it. The same thing applies to using dashi + the essence. Sure, you can use the essence only with water added and it will be pretty good. Essence plus dashi would be even better, especially for something like a clear soup.

Umami is not a flavor, like salt or sweet, that can really overwhelm, as long as you're using natural sources of umami as opposed to chemical. E.g. if you were making stock from turkey carcass and you had 2 turkeys instead of 1, you wouldn't go wrong at all by using them both for 1 pot.

Okay thanks -- so 10cms (4") by whatever width the konbu leaf is, or about 5 gms weight-wise.

I followed the recipe exactly, and made and reduced the 4 cups of essence to 3 cups. I got a VERY dark ink-like liquid which would require A LOT of dilution to become a clear broth. Can you give any idea of how much water you'd normally add (as a ratio) to the essence. Like say 1 cup essence to 4(?) cups water (or dashi)?

Thanks -- and I'm sorry to be such a pest.....

A 1:4 ratio would work for diluting this. If you want a delicate broth, it might be better to start with something lighter like dashi. I use this sauce as a thick yummy flavour coating over onigiri which I sear in a pan with sesame seeds. It is delicious.

This recipe brings back good memories of how my mother teaches people how to cook ... a little of this, a little of that et voila. ;o)

Off topic, but the previous comment by Anonymous was comment no. 5000 since I moved the site to a Drupal installation. I have no idea how many comments I had before then (on Typepad/MovableType), but 5000, in just a few months - wow. Thank you everyone for your participation and encouragement!

I'm wondering --- especially seeing how it's next to impossible to obtain Bonito in Israel. Can I make it somehow with dashi powder instead ?

I feel an intense craving for cold soba coming soon ...

Danke !

-- Ors

Since dashi powder is very concentrated to start with, I would consider making a batch of kaeshi instead of this essence, and adding water + dashi powder when making soba sauce. (Actually these days I make kaeshi more than the essence, since kaeshi keeps at room temperature and my fridge is over-full anyway!)

In Hawaii recently, where I knew I would find this, I bought a package of katsuobushi, which turned out to be one package with five smaller sealed packages inside. Should I keep these sealed packages in my freezer rather than all in a Ziploc in my pantry?

Maki, your kaeshi recipe calls for it to be stored in the refrigerator. Is it all right at room temperature too?

And what about 'plain' soy sauce? I noticed fairly recently that the bottle says to refrigerate it, but I'd previously kept it in a cupboard with no obvious ill effects. What are your thoughts, please?

To me the flavour of japan is the liquid which you get from pickling ume.

I bought a flask and...it was an event.

To open the bottle and the flowery sweet smell of the fruit...and then overwhelmed from the slight tangy, salty taste of the liquid.

Ever tried to marinate some tofu in it and eat the slight pink turned tofu with cold soba noddles?

I need no dipping sauce then..just some from the liquid that i get from marinating the tofu

I've vegetarian so I was wondering if it would be okay to omit the bonito flakes (and if there is anything I would need to do to make up for the lost of umami)