The good news is that dashi is a deliciously savory, versatile stock. The bad news is, you probably don’t have the ingredients at home. The good news is, there are only three of them, and one of them’s water. The bad news is, the other two are dried seaweed and flakes made from rock-hard fish. The good news is, you’ll be glad that you ignored the bad news and went to your local Asian market to get those crazy ingredients.

WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS

Dashi is the basis of many Japanese dishes. Even if you’re somewhat unfamiliar with Japanese food, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to use and how its deep umami taste leaves you uncommonly sated.

THE STEPS YOU TAKE

First, what are we talking about? Well, the word dashi describes a group of thin Japanese liquids used as a soup base or a flavoring ingredient for other dishes.

Different types of dashi are made from different ingredients — dried mushrooms, dried sardines, and the great Korean-American chef David Chang even makes a dashi out of bacon. Regardless of the type, they all have relatively few ingredients, and they all come together pretty quickly, especially compared to those long-simmered French-style stocks that can spend upward of 12 hours on the stove.

The dashi we’re making is the best known type and has only two ingredients besides cold water: a mysterious, smoky, orangey-pinkish substance called “bonito flakes” that looks more like pencil shavings than food, and a dried kelp or seaweed called “kombu.”

“Yum,” right? Seaweed and pencil shavings.

Sounds like Satan’s dessert tray.

That dried seaweed? Well, it’s loaded with umami, that fifth taste (along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour) that represents a deep, rich savor that’s in foods like meat and mushrooms. It’s the taste related to glutamic acid and it’s the taste Asian cooks are looking for when they add monosodium glutamate to their dishes. Not coincidentally, umami was discovered by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda who was doing research on kombu.

Kombu typically comes in large, dried sheets the consistency of stiff cardboard. Trust me: to look at it, you’d never think it was food.

And what about those bonito flakes? Well, I know it sounds like the world’s worst breakfast cereal, but it’s actually the result of a centuries old, traditional Japanese process using a fish called bonito or its cousin, skipjack tuna.

Here’s how it gets from fish to flakes: Japanese artisans simmer skin-on fish fillets in water, then smoke them for hours at a time over several weeks. This dries the flesh and imparts a gentle, smoky flavor. The result is plank-hard blocks of dried fish from which are shaved those wispy flakes, called “hanakatsuo.”

A small percentage of those hard blocks, however, is then covered in mold (yikes!) and fermented for another few months. This is the pricey stuff, called honkarebushi or shiagebushi, but you don’t see that very often. Hanakatsuo, on the other hand, is available in most Asian markets; I purchased a 100-gram bag — enough for about six 1 1/2 quart batches of dashi — for about $7.

Now, true Japanese dashi is an art form, and without the hands-on guidance of a master, we can only approximate its full glory. Nonetheless, if my Western palate has to choose between an approximate dashi and no dashi at all, for me, the choice is clear.

Onward!

Now, because there are only two ingredients in dashi besides the water, you can imagine that variations in the ratio of these ingredients (not to mention variations in the quality of those ingredients) might cause big differences in the final product. True as that may be, there is no absolute, “right” ratio. In fact, while some recipes call for weight ratios (weight being the most accurate measurement), most simply suggest using varying lengths of kombu with varying volumes of bonito flakes. My advice? Start with a piece of kombu ROUGHLY 9 inches square along with APPROXIMATELY a cup and a half of bonito flakes (fluffed, not packed) and a quart and a half of water. Take notes on the flavor and, next time, adjust any ingredient as you see fit.

Here’s what you do:

1. Soak the kombu in the water in a heavy bottomed saucepan for 30 to 60 minutes, then place the pot over high heat. Just before the water boils — when you can see bubbles starting to form around the edge of the pan, turn off the heat, remove the kombu and set it aside.

2. Add the bonito flakes. Don’t stir them; just drop them gently from above and let them flutter down onto the surface, like ashes from a tuna volcano. After about 10 minutes, the saturated flakes will have settled to the bottom. Now, all you do is strain the stock through a fine sieve or a coffee filter or your freshly washed flannel jammies, and you’re done. Dashi.

Or, more precisely, ichiban dashi, also known as “first” stock. If you use the damp, spent kombu and bonito flakes for another stock, that’s called “niban dashi” or “second” stock. It’s not as strong, but it works for most things.

6 THINGS TO DO WITH DASHI

For ichiban dashi:

Make miso soup: Stir in a couple tablespoons of miso and garnish with cubes of tofu and thinly sliced green onion.

Tsuyu: Combine one part dashi with half a part each mirin and soy sauce and a little sugar. Pour over cold soba noodles and serve as is or garnished with cilantro, sliced green onion, cubed tofu, hard cooked egg, grated radish, or anything else that sounds good.

Crazy breakfast: Season dashi with soy sauce and a little mirin and whisk in some Korean red pepper paste called “gochujang.” Add a little sesame oil and serve with noodles and poached egg, or just drink a cup as a spicy, umami-rich pick-me-up first thing in the morning or any time throughout the day.

For either ichiban or niban dashi:

Wilt greens: Wilt a few handfuls of spinach in a bit of simmering dashi, and serve with a few sprinkles of sea salt.

Poach fish: Salmon or shrimp poached, then served in dashi, with a little rice or Japanese (or other kinds of) noodles makes a simple and delicious lunch.

Japanese-style omelet: Whisk a couple ounces dashi into two eggs along with a teaspoon each of mirin and sake, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. Cook your omelet as you would normally and eat as is or cut into thin strips to add to stir-fries or noodle dishes.