Updated： February 18, 2019
Katsuobushi Flakes: Japanese cuisine's essential taste
Katsuobushi are flakes of the bonito fish used to make dashi or to sprinkle on dishes. Read this article to find out how they are made, how to use them and a little bit of history!
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katsuobushi flakes (鰹節)
Katsuobushi are small pieces of sliced dried bonito fish (also called skipjack tuna). These are a very important ingredient of Japanese cuisine because they are used to make the basic-flavored Japanese soup stock. A lot of nimono (煮物) dishes have katsuobushi as a base taste. Miso soup often has a dashi that is made from katsuobushi flakes.
How it's made and a bit of history
Bonito or skipjack tuna
There is evidence that the fish called bonito used to make the katsuobushi has been a part of the Japanese diet since the very beginning of Japanese civilization starting from the Jomon era. From the 5th century CE, the fish started to be smoked but not dried to a point where it can be shaven into flakes. The current form of katsuobushi appeared around the 14th century.
To make katsuobushi, the fish must first be heated to just below the boiling point for one hour. Then, it is smoked several times using oak or some other types of wood. At this point, the katsuobushi can be preserved and it is often the one found in stores. However, there is another step that has to be taken to make true traditional katsuobushi. That last step consists of spraying the piece of fish with a mold (Aspergillus glaucus) and then sun-drying it. The mold is used to suck out any the moisture of the fish, resulting in a product that resembles a piece of wood. At this point, the katsuo can be shaven into flakes using a katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器) such as the one pictured above.
The fish dried in the traditional way loses 80 percent of its weight through the loss of water. This means that the remaining substance has a very high concentration of fish flavor that is also enhanced by the smoking process. It makes excellent dashi just by adding a hand full of flakes to boiling water. Because the katsuobushi is dried it can be kept for a long time without it becoming bad.
It can be used in combination with other ingredients to make a more complex dashi. The basic ingredients used for making this dashi are the ones pictured above. They include kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, dried sardines and the katusobushi. You can even make a vegan dashi made just out of kombu. For more on that, you can check out the link below.
Nowadays, dashi powder that includes katsuo can be bought in powder form. For a natural taste make sure to get one with no additives (in Japanese, the word is mutenka 無添加).
There are some low priced imitations of the dashi taste that come in powder form. The brand Ajinomoto is very popular. These are the powders that contain the so-called monosodium glutamates. An artificial taste that is very addictive! Unfortunately, because the price of using traditional ingredients to make a dashi is quite expensive comparatively, many restaurants and households use this additive as a substitute.
Katsuobushi flakes are not just used to make dashi, they can be used also as a topping for rice or other dishes such as okonomiyaki savory pancakes. They have a deep savory taste so it can really upgrade a meal that lacks some punch. Also, because they are thin flakes, when they are placed in a warm dish, the heat and vapor will cause them to move and rehydrate which adds an interesting visual aspect.
Where to buy
Katsuobushi in its flake or mixed dashi powder form can be found in virtually any Japanese supermarket. Katsuobushi has gone global so if you live abroad, you can probably find them in Asian supermarkets holding Japanese products. They can also be purchased from online retailers.
- Japanese food culture enthusiast. Love to explore new areas and discover local specialties.
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