For years, my soup-making always started like this: ‘dice the onions, and sweat with garlic.’ Such is the start to a good Minestrone, French onion soup, or Cullen Skink.
Slicing and sautéing this vegetable mirepoix, is a smug-making activity. It really feels like cooking. It’s a reminder that the days of Cup a Soup are behind you. No longer are you the sort of person who stirs powder into a mug of hot water. No – now you are a real person – a real person who makes soup.
Then I began learning more about Japanese cooking. And it’s very interesting, because a soup in Japan is quite a different thing to a European soup. There is no frying at the start. Instead, you start with boiling water or broth, and then you just stir things in, a little like George’s Marvellous Medicine. It’s pretty easy really – and most excitingly, it doesn’t involve as much washing up – no knife, no chopping board, no frying pan…
Most commonly, a Japanese soup starts with a dashi stock. This can be bought in powdered form – a little like Bovril or Marigold Bouillon. This is definitely the easiest way to go about things. Dashi is flavoured with seaweed or mushroom or katsuobushi (dried and fermented tuna) – meaning that it’s pretty tricky (and pretty expensive!) to make from scratch. Simply stir a teaspoon of dried dashi powder into 500ml of water, and it’ll give you a lovely savoury, and umami-rich base to start a broth.
You can buy dashi at specialist shops like The Japan Centre. Please, please don’t get hung up on this though. Any fish stock is great – and vegetable stock or pork stock or chicken stock will all do the job as well.
Just a quick note on miso, for those who aren’t familiar with it. Miso is a fermented bean paste – which means that it last for ages in your fridge. This is good news, because miso is often sold in big tubs, and you can do without using just a teaspoon and then it getting covered in mould after a week.
Miso most often comes in the form of red miso (big, bold flavour) and white miso (slightly lighter and sweeter). Either work well for a soup. It dissolves in hot water, and imparts a saltiness as well as its distinctive, savoury flavours. So start by adding one or two teaspoons to your hot stock, and then taste before adding more.
Miso is becoming easier and easier to get hold of – Ocado and Sainsbury’s sell a Clearspring and Yutaka miso paste. Again, you’ll get more choice and better value for money in a specialist shop, like The Japan Centre (£1.79/300g). When you’re there, also look out for ‘instant miso soup‘ – it’s usually a pack of eight or so individual sachets of miso paste and dehydrated veggies, which are pretty tasty, and good for the office.
Salting and Other Flavours
Firstly, the salt. Just as you would add a pinch of salt to a French Onion soup, so you add a splash of soy to a Japanese broth. Remember that miso is salty, so don’t go overboard. Add a little, taste, and then decide whether or not to add more.
Experiment with adding other flavours straight into the broth too. This might be a little fresh, grated ginger or a sliced chilli. At Bone Daddie’s (Japanese restaurant) there are pots of raw garlic cloves on the table, with garlic crushers, so diners can stir it into their broth themselves.
It’s at this point that you might start to really show off with some traditional Japanese flavourings. I’ve purposefully left them out, because it’s a little intimidating (least to say pretty expensive) to have to go and buy a load of mirin rice wine and sake just to make a soup – though perhaps a good purchase for the more seasoned Japanese soup maker.
The Main Ingredients
Now you’ve got your broth on the go, think about what you want to put in it. The recipe below uses it to poach a salmon fillet. But you can also use it to cook slices of pork belly, a selection of mushrooms, noodles or tofu.
When it comes to adding vegetables, just try and add them in a logical order. If, for example, you’re going to cook a big floret of broccoli, then you should add it to the broth before a thin baton of courgette or mange touts.
My final note on this is not to be afraid of dried ingredients. I have a bag of dried shiitake mushrooms and dried hijiki seaweed in my store cupboard which are perfect for broth-making scenarios. I put them in at the start, with the dashi stock. And after ten minutes of cooking, they’ve plumped back up, and have added extra nutritional value to the dish – as well as extra colour and extra flavour. They’re also cheap as the budgie – I think that my pack of seaweed cost about £1.50 and must have lasted at least a year – just a few tiny shards once rehydrated go quite a long way.
If you want to show a little extra flair, then do so in the garnish, rather than overloading the broth with too many flavours. Perhaps some fresh coriander, some thinly-sliced spring onions or a sprinkle of sesame seeds. If you’re not so bothered about reining it in, then go for a traditional Shoyu Tamago. And if you do make a trip to somewhere like The Japan Centre, then keep your eyes peeled for ‘furikake‘ or ‘ sashimi togarashi‘, which is a lovely, colourful Japanese spice mix – perfect for sprinkling over a broth.
Salmon Miso Broth
Serves 2 – and takes no longer than 10 minutes
1 tsp dashi powder (if not, then fish stock or vegetable stock)
1 tbsp white miso
5 button mushrooms, sliced
2 salmon fillets
1/2 courgette, cut into batons
1 tbsp light soy
1 tsp sesame seeds to garnish
1. Bring the water to the boil, stir in the dashi powder and miso.
2. Add the sliced mushrooms, and then add the salmon fillets in the pan to poach in the liquid for 4 minutes. Remember that the saddest thing that can happen to salmon is that it’s overcooked. Also remember that even when you take the pan off the heat, then soup will still be hot, and carry on cooking the salmon.
3. Add the courgette, and cook for 1-2 more minutes.
4. Season with the soy. Divide between two bowls, and garnish with sesame.
For more posts to help you Rein It In, check out: