Translated by Hilary Keyes
Japanese Encyclopedia: Katsuobushi (Dried Sliced Bonito)
Katsuobushi is the basic ingredient found in the majority of Japanese dishes; some might even say that it is what makes a dish Japanese. But what is it exactly?
Written by k_yamamuro
Katsuobushi (鰹節) is the small ribbon-like pieces of bonito that have been preserved through heating and drying the meat. It is used as the basic ingredient in numerous Japanese dishes and, prior to slicing, is one of the hardest foods in the world.
How to Use Katsuobushi
In order to cut katsuobushi, a special cutting blade with a box attachment must be used; this creates the distinctive paper-thin bonito flakes. Once it has been cut, it is referred to as kezuribushi ("flaked bonito") and can then be used to make dashi (soup/sauce base). It can also be put on top of boiled vegetables (such as spinach or komatsu - Japanese mustard spinach) with soy sauce as a dressing - a cooking technique known as o-hitashi.
These bonito flakes can be used as toppings too. When you put katsuobushi on hot, freshly made okonomiyaki, these paper-thin ribbons will sway back and forth; in this case, it is said that the “katsuobushi are dancing”.
Katsuobushi and konbu (a type of dried salted kelp) are used together to create dashi, the flavorful broth that is the basis for many Japanese soup dishes. This base can be adapted or enhanced by the chef, allowing for fine adjustments to be made to the recipes.
Katsuobushi Used in This and That
Though dishes such as soba, udon and miso soup may have hundreds of variations all across Japan, the one thing that ties each dish together is the inclusion of katsuobushi in the base of the soup. In all of Japan, perhaps the place that uses katsuobushi the most is Okinawa, where you will find Okinawa soba, and sōki jiru (stewed pork spare ribs). Both of these dishes are simmered in plenty of katsuo-dashi.
Katsuo-dashi broth is also a key ingredient in the savory steamed egg-custard dish chawanmushi and most other bowl-based foods. In fact, one might go so far as to say that a dish isn't really Japanese if it doesn't have katsuobushi in it.
While many may think that soy sauce is the standard flavor of Japan, the real heart and soul of most of the amazing dishes found all across this country come from katsuobushi. If you would like to taste the difference bonito makes, by all means purchase some katsuobushi as a souvenir of your time in Japan and enjoy making authentic Japanese cuisine at home.