Very rarely do we come across a single ingredient that is so integral to a specific cuisine, as is the relationship between katsuobushi (aka bonito flakes) and Japan. An umami-rich ingredient, bonito flakes have been sprinkled and simmered into culinary superstardom.
What is Katsuobushi?
Katsuobushi are dried, fermented, and shaved pieces of tuna. The anglicized term ‘bonito’ flakes are a bit of a misnomer, given that true katsuobushi are made from skipjack tuna, not bonito fish. These feathery, savory, smoky flakes have a delicate flavor that is like a mild cross between bacon and anchovies.
Katsuobushi’s most prominent contribution to the culinary world is as a primary ingredient in dashi. Dashi is a savory stock made by simmering kombu and katsuobushi, it is the essential base for soups and sauces in Japanese cuisine.
You’ve most likely had katsuobushi sprinkled over Japanese dishes like okonomiyaki or takoyaki. An intriguing garnish, katsuobushi imparts exquisite umami notes as it appears to dance and sway when sprinkled on hot food. Many store-bought Japanese spice blends or prepared food products contain katsuobushi, making it one of the most used ingredients country-wide. And, with katsuobushi’s rise in global culinary popularity, you will likely see this ingredient on pizzas, pastas, salads, and sandwiches. Katsuobushi has, lovingly, been called ‘the parmesan of the sea’ (as it can and should be sprinkled over everything).
How is Katsuobushi made?
Tuna fillets are broken down into small, even pieces. These pieces are then wood smoked for upwards of a month. Once smoked, the tuna is then fermented using the same bacteria that is used to produce sake, miso, and soy sauce, before air drying. The resulting tuna is transformed into rock-hard pieces of katsuobushi. The pieces are typically about 1 foot in length and weigh around half a pound after the process is complete.
How to buy Katsuobushi?
Most Asian grocers will supply and stock shaved katsuobushi. If you’re interested in shaving your own, online is the best place to source and buy (and we also recommend buying a specialty katsuobushi shaving tool as well). Prices start at about $20 for a 200g piece of katsuobushi.