A healthy alternative to meat
A nutritional powerhouse that’s as flexible as it is flavourful, katsuobushi’s essence defines Japanese cuisine.
At the heart of Japanese cuisine is the flavourful broth called dashi, and at the heart of dashi is the delicate shavings of petrified fish, better known as katsuobushi. Used not only in soups but also in sauces, dressings and even stir-fries, almost nothing can beat it in its ubiquity and definitiveness of Japanese cuisine. Understanding how to use katsuobushi can unlock the secrets of how to make Japanese food taste like Japanese food.
From simple fish to cooking staple
Katsuobushi has been an essential part of the Japanese diet for hundreds of years and is made through an extremely labour-intensive process. A medium-sized fish known as bonito is cut up, cooked, deboned, fermented and smoked over a period of months and sometimes even years. The finished product is a piece of fish that looks like dry wood and is as hard as stone, less than 20% of its original size and containing only about 18% water. This is shaved down into paper-thin and pink-coloured flakes. One of the most traditional uses of these flakes is for creating broth, and they are steeped with kombu (dried kelp) to draw out deep flavours and irresistibly rich umami.
Japanese cuisine is often cited as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, and katsuobushi is an underpinning of this impressive title with its nutritional abundance. It is jam-packed with DHA, which is essential for the growth and functional development of brains in infants as well as critical for brain health in adults. Including it in your diet every day can actually make you smarter! Katsuobushi is also a great source of protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder Japan boasts the highest life expectancy in the world.
Using katsuobushi in everyday cooking
Until only a few decades ago, almost every household had their own katsuobushi kezuriki, or a wood plane to shave bonito flakes immediately before use. Nowadays, most people in Japan buy pre-sliced katsuobushi in plastic bags, and more and more people are actually skipping the whole process of making their own dashi and buying bottled dashi in grocery stores. While they are fine replacements, there is nothing like making your own dashi from scratch, and it only takes a few minutes and a single pot. Empty a handful of flakes into a pot of boiling water and let them steep for about three minutes. When the ingredients sit at the bottom of the pot, strain it and you’ll have your own homemade dashi that’s ready to be used in countless different traditional and modern Japanese dishes.
In addition to dashi, katsuobushi can be used as a topping on various dishes. Some traditional examples are okonomiyaki, takoyaki and cold tofu, but you can be adventurous and sprinkle it onto anything that needs a savoury touch. Katsuobushi flakes are available in most Asian grocery stores and can be stored for up to one year.
The key to umami
Not-so-fishy and bursting with flavour—everybody loves this fossilized fish! Chances are, you’ve tried! katsuobushi already without even knowing it.
- Does your food taste a little bland? Containing over 100 aromas and umami elements, katsuobushi is an instant source of flavour.
- Because the petrified fish is not readily available outside of Japan (only packaged katsuobushi is), superstar chef David Chang (Momofuku) invented a pork version of katsuobushi and named it butabushi.
- When katsuobushi is put on top of hot food, the heat causes the thin katsuobushi slices to move around, making it seem as if they’re alive and dancing.
- John Lennon’s seventh album, Shaved Fish, is an homage to katsuobushi.
- Cats go crazy for katsuobushi and it is a common treat given to pets in Japan.