Dashi, Shoyu and the Essence of Japanese Cooking at the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco

konbu growing off the northern coast of Japan

Dashi & Shoyu: Essence of Japan is one of those ravishing pieces of cinema that should really be experienced on a big screen. Is that weird to say about a food documentary? Combining the best techniques from nature and science photography with elegant settings and food stylistics, the film is gorgeously made. (Props to cinematographer Yasuo Kasugai, owner of a surprisingly scant IMDB page, given the accomplished visuals in this work.)

The film screens only once (Saturday, July 30 at noon) at the fourth annual Japan Film Festival of San Francisco, which opens Saturday, July 23, 2016 and runs through the 31st. The festival brings the best of contemporary Japanese cinema to the Bay Area, including action, sci-fi, documentary, anime, shorts, live music, kabuki theatre, crime mystery, and family drama.

As the title suggests, Dashi & Shoyu is broken into two parts. Think of them as two sides of a scale, because the film's main subject is balance. The first section explores the making and refinement of dashi, the golden broth that is the base of all Japanese cooking. Made from the combination of two primary elements, konbu (also spelled kombu) kelp and dried bonito (the vegetarian version replaces bonito with shiitake mushrooms), the goal is to create the perfect umami, the fifth flavor -- joining bitterness, sourness, saltiness and sweetness -- which is believed to enhance all the other elements in a dish.

Cut to the konbu harvest off the wild northern coast of Japan. There 90-year-old Yuri Fujimoto relies on the turgid waves to break thick kelp stocks loose from the ocean floor, which she gathers as they come ashore. Meanwhile, Toshikatsu Miura and his family perform controlled cultivation in small boats accompanied by gorgeous underwater shots of kelp forests and micro-photography detailing their maturation process.

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Konbu is added to water and gently simmered. Once this first ingredient has been drained from the dashi, thin shavings of dried bonito are added. In a process unique to Japan, the bonito fish are caught, filleted, simmered, smoked and then fermented in mold.

Balanced interaction with nature is important to both of dashi's main ingredients: Night fog gently remoistens dried konbu, naturally releasing noxious gasses; repeated exposure to sunlight kills and circulates layers of mold on the surface of the bonito, which are dried until they resemble small blocks of wood.

Kuniko Shiiba tastes the sap of a tree.
Kuniko Shiiba tastes the sap of a tree.

Similar sensitivities are at work in the felling of trees used to grow mushrooms. 89-year-old Kuniko Shiiba cuts the bark of trees, and tastes their sap to determine whether they can be slashed and burned for the growing of mushrooms -- delightfully depicted with time-lapse photography. Shiiba's work illustrates an embodied relationship with the forest that provides her sustenance. Cut down the trees too early and they lack sufficient nutrients to support mushroom growth; cut them down too late and the sap contains protective substances that inhibit the establishment of spore colonies. Trees cut at the right time will sprout new shoots and the forest will renew itself.

The second half of the documentary takes a deep dive into the world of Japanese fermentation. Both shoyu (soy sauce) and sake depend on a tiny organism -- Aspergillus Oryzae -- found only in Japan. It is believed this mold spore was selected and bred over centuries of cultivation for the fermentation processes it supports.

Microphotography of mold spores
Micro-photography of mold spores

Once again, timing and harmony with the environment are key to success in the making of fermented products. Distinct flavors can be attributed to organisms specific to individual warehouses. The shoyu takes a whole year and is subject to the vicissitudes of the seasons. Spores are introduced to the soy beans in the mild weather of spring, allowing a slow, controlled start. If the system overheats, it will burn away organisms necessary to take the process to completion. Early summer brings humidity that stimulates fermentation, which ends at the advent of the dry season. When the weather turns cold, the shoyu is finished and the results can be distilled. Patience is rewarded, as it is in most of the food growth, harvesting and preparation methods described in the film.

One sequence shows a young couple preparing the dashi and rice mixture they will use to introduce their infant to solid food. It is accompanied by a striking quote: "The influence of gastronomy on national taste does much to shape the world." This is something I never thought of before and find it fascinating to consider what we teach young tastebuds about the nature of food and the child's place within a complex ecosystem that generates a particular form of sustenance.

Dashi & Shoyu: Essence of Japan
is a handsome piece of filmmaking that reflects the Zen philosophy at the root of Japanese cooking in its own exquisite style. It is a lovely consideration of the time, care, expertise and stewardship involved in the cultivation and preparation of the ingredients that anchor the Japanese kitchen.

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The Japan Film Festival of San Francisco runs July 23-31, 2016. For tickets and information, visit jffsf.org.

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