|The honbushi used at Marusaya|
When I visited Kyoto years back, I ate at a clutch of kyo-kaiseki restaurants for a story that I was writing. Then, I was exposed to the finest dashi I’ve ever tasted. It appeared in an elegant snapping turtle broth; it arrived as a clear but intensely profound consommé that coddled a slab of bamboo shoot; and its fragrance, which perfumed the rarified air in the ryotei, was gently evident in the claypot rice that concluded my kaiseki on a high. Till today, the smoky yet refined flavours of the dashi are still etched in my memory bank.
Dashi, a broth responsible for the savouriness in Japanese food, is the backbone of Japanese cuisine and the cornerstone of kyo-kaiseki. It is the ingredient that sets a garden-variety kaiseki meal from an excellent one. The Japanese answer to ultimate umami if you will.
From miso soup to soba dip, tempura sauce to simmered dishes, dashi is found abundantly in many Japanese foods. Not all dashi are created equal however. The Japanese soup stock is sometimes crafted with kelp paired with shiitake mushrooms or, at other times, from dried baby sardines.
The most common dashi, however, is prepped with just 3 ingredients – cold water, kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (thinly shaved flakes of smoked-dried skipjack tuna or bonito).
According to The Tokyo Foundation:”Many professional cooks in Kyoto, a city famous for its abundance of top-class Japanese restaurants, specifically ask for the Satsuma type when buying katsuobushi.”
Kagoshima Prefecture has the largest production of katsuobushi in Japan and the wharf of Satsuma, a town in the Kagoshima Prefecture, is lined with katsuobushi (katsuo is Japanese for bonito) factories that process karebushi as well as the lower-grade arabushi (dried and smoked bonito that has not been cured and sun-dried).
Karebushi is katsuobushi that has been coated with mold, sun-dried and fermented repetitively over a period of time, typically 6 months. It’s been known to produce more concentrated umami and yields a more sophisticated – if refined – flavour. While most karebushi is used soon after production, some remains stored in the warehouse over an extended period after production to allow further drying and fermentation.
In his book on “Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant”, author Yoshihiro Murata reveals his dashi recipe of matching 1-year-old aged honbushi with first grade Rishiri kombu and water. In his 3 Michelin-starred ryotei in Kyoto, this deceptively simple yet deeply complex dashi appears multiple times in his seasonally inspired multicourse tasting menu that includes dishes like vegetables with kuzu jelly in dashi.
Since I’ve had my dashi-epiphany in Kyoto, I’ve yet to come across an equal even if Singapore now boasts a clutch of top-tier kaiseki houses. But a casual Japanese restaurant that I recently chanced upon at Robertson Quay gave me reasons to be optimistic.
|Marusaya at Robertson Quay|
Named Marusaya, the restaurant is owned and operated by a Japanese katsuobushi wholesaler of the same name. The menu here is extensive and almost most items are underscored by a common theme – dashi. Not just any dashi but one prepped with Rishiri kelp and Satsuma 2 year-old hongare-honbushi (“honbushi”) wholesaled by its parent company. Depending on the application, the honbushi is sometimes replaced with other types of karebushi also wholesaled by the company.
For a quiet appreciation of the sheerness of the dashi in question, try the omakase (Hana at S$100+ or Akane S$150++). We had the Akane omakase, of which the succession of small plates included sashimi and various appetizers but it was the dashi-rich courses that had us rapt.
During our visit, there was a cup of deliriously smoky yet light and elegant chawan mushi prepped with 2 year-aged honbushi; it was served with a smidgen of Bafun uni and yuba. (4.75/5)
Next, the honbushi dashi arrived as a supporting cast on a simmered dish of taro, pumpkin and octopus in light dashi. Accompanying it was moroheiya (mallow leaf) steeped in umami-packed double-dosed honbushi dashi and a morsel of roe-filed sweet ayu. (4/5)
|Yellowtail belly shabu shabu|
A trio of sashimi grade yellowtail belly slices was served at the shabu shabu course alongside a heap of vegetables. The shabu shabu dashi broth had no salt nor MSG, just honbushi with Rishiri kelp that yielded a deeply smoky flavour with an underlying umami note that lingered on the palate. (4.75/5)
|Chef Akane scooping claypot rice for us|
Claypot rice flecked with chestnut, maitake, matsutake and shimeji gently perfumed with the same dashi broth concluded our dinner. The Nanatsuboshi rice was near perfect although, to be perfectly honest, the grilled salmon that crowned the heaping bowl was not our favourite choice of protein. (4.25)
Even if omakase were not your cup of tea, one could still opt for a quick meal of affordably priced dashi ramen (3.5/5), beef udon (3.75/5) or wafudashi pasta (4/5). Our favourite of the lot was the pasta, an original East-meets-West creation that married capellini with the sheerness of Japanese dashi. It was an unlikely matrimony, made more interesting with delicious condiments of chopped shiso leaf, mentaiko and a dollop of butter.
Now, if you’re rushing to make a reservation at Marusaya, be forewarned that all other dashi you taste henceforth will be measured against this.
86 Robertson Quay, Singapore 238 216 | +65 6732 0383 |marusaya.sg/en/
© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.