If you want to make some miso soup and have run out of dashi powder, it is good to know that yes, there are dashi substitutes you can use in your miso soup or other Japanese dishes. However, some of these substitutes are better described as alternatives, rather than like for like substitutes as they will not give the complex flavor experience that you would get if the recipe were made with dashi.
What is Dashi?
It is dashi, or the liquid flavoring, that gives Japanese dishes such as katsudon, miso soup and the batter of okonomiyaki and takoyaki their umami flavor.
Dashi is a common broth base for stews, noodle soups and hotpots and is also used in sauces and as a seasoning.
Although many of us tend to buy instant dashi powders or granules, unless you have a well-stocked specialty store nearby or have received an online order, there are limited options if you want to make a Japanese dish and are running low on dashi.
There are five different types of dashi used in Japanese cuisine and these can be used individually or as a combination of two or more. It is important to be aware of these as the type of dashi you need to substitute affects which substitutes are the most suitable.
- Awase dashi is the all-purpose dashi, in fact, awase means ‘combination’ or ‘mixed’ in Japanese and is ideal for many recipes, not least miso soup. This dashi is made with katsuobushi (dried and fermented bonito/skipjack tuna flakes) and dried kelp (kombu).
- Katsuo dashi uses katsuobushi (dried and fermented bonito/skipjack tuna flakes) as its base and is often used for soups, noodle soups and vegetable dishes.
- Niboshi or iriko dashi is made with dried sardines/anchovies. This is the strongest ‘fishy’ dashi and is used for simmered dishes, noodle soups and miso soup and other dishes where the stronger flavor will not overpower other flavors.
- Kombu dashi has a dried kelp base and is often the easiest type of dashi to make at home and suits dishes with subtle flavors.
- Shiitake dashi is made with dried shiitake mushrooms and can be used in noodle soups, simmered or stir fried dishes and Chinese style recipes.
The last two types of dashi are both vegan and are often used together for more enhanced flavor.
I have grouped the following dashi powder substitutes based on homemade dashi, which as well as time, will need Japanese or East Asian ingredients such as rice wine, bonito flakes and kombu, and some of the more general substitutes that may already be in your pantry.
If you use dashi regularly, you will find it easier to choose a substitute, but if you are new to Japanese cooking, you may want to try different types of dashi first so you know what flavors you need when choosing a substitute.
Substitute 1: Homemade Awase Dashi
Cooking a 4" by 4" piece of kombu (dried kelp) with four cups of water and a cup of bonito flakes will make awase dashi.
Once the kombu has been soaked and cooked, add some cold water to the pan and the bonito flakes. Turn up the heat and once the liquid starts to boil, turn off the burner and allow the bonito flakes to settle at the bottom of the pan. After straining, the dashi can be used, refrigerated or frozen.
The strained ingredients can also be reused to make ‘second dashi’.
Substitute 2: Homemade Fish Stock (Fumet)
Fumet can be used in a range of traditional Japanese dishes.
Use a non-oily and mild white fish such as cod, bass, snapper or halibut as the base of a white fish dashi replacement. If you fillet your own fish, then keep back the head and bones, or ask at your local fish market for the scraps when you buy your fish.
The fish will need to be cleaned thoroughly under cold running water as any traces of blood will turn the liquid bitter.
In a skillet, you will need to sauté finely sliced onion, celery and leek, minced garlic, fennel, tarragon and parsley. Add bay leaves, the white fish and fish scraps and bring up to the boil. Then add a little white wine and cook for another couple of minutes.
In a stockpot, bring enough water up to the boil that will cover all the above ingredients and once boiling, tip everything from the skillet into the water pan. Add one or two tablespoons of soy sauce, a tablespoon of sugar and a teaspoon of mirin (rice wine) and allow everything to simmer for an hour.
Once ready, strain the liquid and this fumet can be used immediately, cooled and refrigerated or cooled and frozen for use at another time.
Substitute 3: Homemade Shellfish Stock
You can make a similar stock as the homemade fish stock above, but with shrimp or prawns instead of white fish. Just switch out the fennel, tarragon and parsley for fresh thyme, leek for carrots and add a little tomato paste, salt and black pepper.
Substitute 4: Homemade Kombu Dashi and Shiitake Dashi (Vegan)
With a packet of kombu (dried seaweed) and dried shiitake mushrooms, you can make a vegetarian and vegan friendly dashi.
Make up the kombu in a stockpot as per the pack instructions and leave for half an hour. At the same time, reconstitute the shiitake mushrooms as the pack instructs.
After the kombu has stood for 30 minutes, turn on the stovetop, take it to a boil and leave to simmer for 10 minutes then add the liquid from your reconstituted shiitake mushrooms.
You can either use the mushrooms in your cooking or place them in a plastic zip bag in the freezer and re-use them for dashi a few more times. You can also re-use the kombu.
Substitute 5: Soy Sauce
Like dashi, soy sauce adds umami and in fact, Japanese dishes may also contain soy sauce as well as dashi, so if you have no dashi, you can just add more soy sauce.
As well as being high in sodium though, soy sauce will also darken a light colored dish, even if you use a light soy sauce.
Substitute 6: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Although some prefer to avoid MSG or monosodium glutamate in foods, MSG does boost umami. MSG can also be easier to find in larger grocery stores than Japanese ingredients.
Today’s MSG is usually made from soybeans but when it was originally isolated at the beginning of the 20th century, it was from the same seaweed used for kombu. This means that when you use dashi, it already contains the glutamate which activates the fifth taste - umami.
Substitute 7: Chicken Broth
You can also substitute dashi with chicken broth, although it does lack the ‘sea flavor’ that you get with dashi.
If you do use chicken broth, avoid using one which is heavy on the aromatics. Other broths such as beef are too strongly flavored to use as a dashi substitute.
If you have the ingredients in your pantry and a little spare time, then the best instant dashi substitute is a homemade awase dashi which is ideal for many Japanese dishes. You could also make fish or shellfish stock or kombu dashi and shiitake dashi.
Otherwise, dashi substitutes include soy sauce, MSG or even chicken broth, although these cannot offer the same complexity of flavor as dashi.