Photographer Eric Wolfinger traveled the length of Japan with Chef Shinobu Namae of Tokyo’s L’effervescence restaurant to learn about and document the origins of dashi, the deceptively simple, umami-rich broth of dried bonito and kelp that’s the foundation of Japanese cooking.
There are two things you have to understand about the seaweed and dried bonito “umami broth” known as dashi. One, it’s ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine—you’ve had it in everything from miso soup to ponzu sauce. Like butter in French cooking, dashi is the invisible ingredient that pumps up flavor. And two, just like the hush-hush enrichment of a demi-glace, no Japanese chef will talk about their dashi. My friend, chef Shinobu Namae, is out to change that.
Shinobu is a Japanese-born chef who started his career obsessed with Western technique. He trained with Michel Bras, considers Chez Panisse his favorite restaurant, and when it came time to open his own place in Tokyo, L’Effervescence, he earned two Michelin stars for his personal interpretation of French food.
Recently, he has been embracing his Japanese roots. His first move was to replace veal stock with dashi. Simple enough, since dashi is made with two ingredients: sun-dried seaweed (kombu) and smoke-cured fish shavings (katsuobushi), which are steeped in hot water then strained, leaving behind only their aroma and savory essence in an amber-tinged broth. For a French-trained chef, making dashi is a hell of a lot simpler than simmering veal bones for 12 hours.
But in Japan, like everywhere else, convenience trumps all, and the old way of making dashi is going by the wayside in favor of powdered equivalents, like Hondashi (second ingredient: monosodium glutamate). For a chef like Shinobu, the erosion of tradition is a call to action. He found it poetic that the bedrock of Japanese cuisine comes from opposite ends of his country. He decided to travel to the home of each ingredient, and he invited me to accompany him with my camera.
Our first stop was the northernmost island of Hokkaido to meet the people who forage for kombu. We imagined an industrial operation but found instead small communities of men and women who gather it one strand at a time. The season lasts only two summer months, when the arctic sun is plentiful enough to dry the kombu on rock beds for three days. Once dry, it’s moved indoors for three years to refine and concentrate its natural glutamates.
From Rebun Island, off the coast of Hokkaido, we went more than 1,000 miles south to Kagoshima to visit the artisans who make katsuobushi, the dried, cured bonito. Yusuke Sezaki, a fourth-generation artisan, invited us into his family workshop. As he demonstrated the stages of smoking, fermenting, and drying the fish (a three- to six-month process), he introduced us to the concept of kodawari: an obsessive attention to the fine, subtle detail of one’s craft that any artisan who takes pride in their work must have.
Making dashi is as easy as making tea. In very little time, and with very little effort, you get this foundational flavor that imparts depth to whatever dish you use it in. And the results are entirely thanks to the care—the kodawari—that went into making those two ingredients. —As told to Mary Frances-Heck