Writer: Yumiko Ishimaru
There is a word in Japanese, “atoaji.” There is often a pleasant aftertaste that accompanies “sumashi-jiru” (clear soup) or “miso-shiru” (miso soup) that is made with dashi stock. That is atoaji. This atoaji signifies satisfaction after a meal and makes you say, “Oh, that was so good!” That’s one of the big benefits that dashi brings out. That is to say, that’s a true pleasure of “washoku” (Japanese meal).
You never see only dashi soup served on the dining table. It doesn’t become a “dish” by itself. Dashi is the base of dish and a power of natural ingredients. The power comes from the “umami” that is extracted out of all the ingredients. Dashi comes in many varieties: “katsuobushi (dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna flakes,” “kombu,” “niboshi (Japanese dried infant sardines),” or “dried shiitake mushroom” are basic ingredients for washoku.
On the other hand, the key player that makes dishes delicious that already have umami, flavor, smell and aftertaste is “seasoning”. A Japanese dish is a work of dashi + ingredients + seasoning—so-called, triangle power. Dashi is not equal to seasoning.
Other than salt, there are Japanese traditional seasonings such as “soy sauce,” “miso,” “mirin,” “vinegar,” and “sake” that are made of “koji.” They are called fermented seasonings. Those tastes, flavors and smells vary by region, and you can learn regional culture and history from the flavors.
Let me tell you an interesting story about miso.
The method of “koji” fermentation originated in China. The family of condiments that include soy sauce and miso is called “jiàng” in China. As time passed, “mi jiàng” became “miso,” and the name “miso” became established in Japan. Japanese people have a passion for miso of this name. “So” of “miso” means “enthusiastically crowded” and “miso” means “sophisticated taste” and “the top flavor of everything.” Miso soup was invented by a monk who abided by an “austerity diet.” It is a simple dish even though it is excellent in nutritional balance. It is reasonable that samurai used to carry “miso-dama” which was an easily transportable nutritious food during war times.