What Makes Katsuobushi Dried Bonito Invaluable -1
TOKYO – Until about 40 years ago in Japan, every family had a dried bonito (katsuobushi) shaver. The bonito fish is a relative of the tuna, and is dried to a wood-like consistency. In the past, even the children of the home would grip the hard chunk and shave it vigorously to make shavings. The act is similar to planing wood. The activity of dried bonito shaving was part of a home’s usual daily work.
Today, not many families own dried bonito shavers. Kids probably never saw the apparatus, which is usually a wooden box with a blade fixed into the top; the shavings drop into a drawer below to be added to a meal later. Nowadays, dried bonito is sold as flakes or powdered in a bag (or a stick), not as a whole lump. Originally, dried bonito was sold in chunks shaped like a big sweet potato. Although it’s actually part of a smoke-dried fish, it is completely dried and extremely hard, and thus you can never nibble it as it is. Once planed into shavings, you can eat the shavings as they are. A handful of shavings can be boiled into a traditional Japanese broth called “dashi,” the taste of which determines the quality of almost all Japanese cuisine.
Without dashi, no example of Japanese cuisine will taste any good. You will definitely need dashi for miso soup, simmered dishes, noodles and hot pots, among others. Dashi can also be made using dried kelp (kombu), small dried sardines (niboshi) and dried shiitake mushrooms. However, when most people think of the best dashi, it’s the type that includes katsuobushi dried bonito. Even when you mix ingredients, dried bonito is still a popular inclusion as it goes well with any other ingredient. With that said, many people would say they make dashi using the convenient powdered stick form instead of boiling dried bonito or dried kelp.
You might be surprised to hear that you can make authentic dashi in only 10 minutes. It’s true! Taizo Inaba, a dried bonito wholesaler who has been in the business for more than 40 years, said, “It is very simple to make dashi at home using real dried bonito. A complicated image of authentic Japanese cuisine has been fabricated, and people are put off from trying to make dashi by real dried bonito at home.”
As a veteran dried bonito connoisseur, Taizo can tell the amount of oil and umami contained in a chunk of dried bonito just by looking at the surface of it. He started this family business at the age of 20. He took over the entire business and management of their store, Taiko, from his father when Taizo was 30 years old. Taizo’s father, Tomiji, was an established dried bonito wholesaler known as one of the three greatest dried bonito connoisseurs of the time. Tomiji was quite serious about his job and Taizo honored and respected everything his father said on the matter. Taizo learned a lot from his father and now focuses on his mission to spread the word on how to make tasty, real dried bonito dashi. His dashi-making lessons are so well-received that he travels to give lessons across the nation almost every weekend.
“It’s unfortunate that people have the misunderstanding that making dashi is difficult,” said Taizo. If you put a couple of pieces of dried kelp in a bowl of water and leave it overnight, the umami of the kelp will be extracted into the water. In the morning, heat the water and keep it boiling for 5 minutes or so. Add shredded dried bonito or a bag of scraped dried bonito in the boiling water and leave it for additional 5 minutes or so. After that, take the dried kelp and dried bonito out of the water. Voila! The authentic dashi is ready. The dashi will show you a clear, light amber color. If you put miso in it, the dashi will become miso soup. It’s so simple. The role of Japanese dashi is played by bouillon in the West and tang in China, both of which take hours (or days) to make. Compared to Japanese dashi, what a difference!
Until a decade ago, not many foreigners were interested in the taste of dashi. When it comes to the aroma, few foreigners found it appetizing. Those foreigners who used to feel uneasy with dried bonito’s seashore smell seem to have been replaced by those who enjoy the aroma today, as more and more tourists visit fish markets in Tokyo at 4 AM and eat raw fish on site. The smell of fish is everywhere at the market.
With the rising popularity of Japanese food called washoku, the recognition of authentic Japanese dashi is also on the rise in foreign countries. Some French restaurants use dried bonito dashi in their cuisine. The demand for dried bonito may increase in the coming years. And we might want to be sure of what we’re buying – sometimes what is labeled “dried bonito” (“katsuobushi”) may not be real dried bonito.
Continue to Part 2
Story by Motomi Takahashi
Photo provided by Taiko