I have been experimenting with Japanese soups the past couple of weeks and I feel as if I have finally have gotten the hang of it. The major breakthrough has been my ability to make a decent dashi from scratch. Dashi is the mother broth for most Japanese soups and is basically composed of two ingredients: kombu and katsuoboshi. Kombu is a thick, dried stalk of seaweed, which you place in a pot of water slowly brought to a simmer. After the kombu steeps in the water for about 15-20 minutes, you remove the kombu, take the pot off the heat, and then put in a handful of katsuoboshi. Katsuoboshi, also known as bonito flakes, is dried, fermented skipjack tuna, which is essential for a good dashi. You leave it in the hot, kombu-flavored water for about 10-15 minutes, and then strain. You now have dashi, an acrid, smoky, fishy, and to me, unappetizing liquid. However, you essentially end up with a pot full of pure, liquid umami that, with the addition of just a couple of ingredients, is the foundation of some delicious soups.
The simplest one is probably miso soup. All you have to do is put in about a tablespoon of miso for 4 cups of dashi, bring it to a boil, and then you're done. Add some finely chopped scallions, tofu, and a little wakamane (dried seaweed) and the result is something indistinguishable from a restaurant.
Another great dish is Udon Noodle Soup. Here, you get your four cups of dashi, add two tablespoons of dark soy sauce, and one tablespoon of mirin (a sweet Japanese rice alcohol). Bring the liquid to a boil and then put in some udon noodles, and you get a classic noodle soup. I gussied it up with chopped scallions and sliced kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), maybe throw in some wakamane and an egg, and you get a classic Japanese dish. A subtle dish that has hints of sweet, salty, and umami interacting with each other in a comforting, homey soup.
Considering how easy dashi is to make from scratch, I don't think I can go back to granulated dashi bouillon anymore.
FYI: If you need to buy kombu, bonito flakes, or instant dashi, and you don't want to leave the District, you should go to Hana Market on 17th and U St NW (across the street from the police station). They have all the ingredients there.