Dashi and umami

Another shoot to add to my expanding menu of stories on Japanese food. This time I covered arguably the core ingredient of Japanese cuisine, the ingredient without which Japanese food probably wouldn’t exist: dashi fish stock.

The first place I went to was Tsukiji Tamura a famous ryotei not far from the fish market in Tokyo. I wanted to ask the head chef and owner, Takashi Tamura all about dashi.

This is him preparing “ichiban dashi”, the kind where you only soak the bonito flakes in the water for a short while. He looked like a circus juggler with all those pans and did it so quickly. I had to ask him to make two lots. Luckily the kitchen was pretty bright with lots of shiny aluminum surfaces I could bounce my strobe off. I’m not sure why the background has come out so yellow, but it could have been worse.

making dashi

Tsukiji Tamura

The next place I checked out was the little shop that supplies the restaurant’s katsuobushi. Tamura uses the very best, most expensive kind of bonito flakes, honkarebushi.

This is the shop owner, Kawabe san. It’s not much more than a stall in the corner of an mall in the Tsukiji outer market. Kawabe was a bit nervous, so I caught this semi-candid photo as he was carrying some boxes. That’s his mother in the background I think.

katsuobushi shop

As food stuffs go katsuobushi is pretty unusual. It’s possibly the hardest foodstuff known to man, and one of the most beautiful. Look at the ruby inside of this katsuobushi. Kawabe had to slam it on the edge of his desk three times before it broke.


The other key ingredient for dashi is kombu (kelp). Suita shoten also supplies Tsukiji Tamura and is just a minute’s walk away from the katsuobushi shop. This is the owner Suita-san. He was a pretty relaxed guy.

I love photographing food producers, sellers and chefs.They always seem to look healthy and contented . . . which is not always the case with some of the business portraits I also do.

kombu shop

Lot’s of kombu. Kombu has more “umami” than any other foodstuff. Combined with katsuobushi in dashi, the umami effect is multiplied many times. Here’s a link to the book on dashi and umami which set me off on this article. Tamura’s dashi recipes are in the book. (He’s also a cookbook writer and NHK TV chef)


More dashi katsuobushi and kombu photos . . .

Dashi, katsuobushi and kombu, July 2009 – Images by Tony McNicol

3 Responses to “Dashi and umami”

  1. Hsiao-Lan says:

    Hi there Tony!

    I first came across your blog a few months back, and I look forward to reading it every week and seeing the photos. I’d like to know how you usually decide the theme? Because it really interests me how you investigate background to everyday things that we use here in Japan. Look forward to your response!


  2. tony says:

    Hi Hisiao-Lan. This story on dashi-umami is part of a series on the “basic ingredients” of Japanese food. So far, I’ve done miso, sake and dashi/umami. Next is rice, but after that I’m not sure.

    Any suggestions from yourself or other readers of this blog are very welcome! I promise you’ll get to see the fruits of the suggestion.

  3. I just used my last kombu and thinking to go back to that shop in Tsukiji you photographed. I love that shop and I also thought Dashi and Umami book was excellent!

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