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What Makes Katsuobushi Dried Bonito Invaluable -2

TOKYO – So what exactly is dried bonito, anyway? Most Japanese people know shavings of dried bonito. But, the exact definition of it is not fully known, even in Japan. “If you want to call the products ‘katsuobushi,’ it must be well-simmered first and then dried perfectly. If you blunder in this production process, it is no longer katsuobushi no matter how much it looks like katsuobushi,” said Taizo with a true Tokyoite accent. “Among real katsuobushi, I deal with only bonito captured by pole-and-line fishing.”

All those processes sound so complicated to a regular person! What in the world does all of that mean? Although dried bonito is used for almost all Japanese cuisine and a key part of our diet, so many facts are veiled in terms of how to make a chunk of true dried bonito.

All dried bonito that comes to Taiko is from Makurazaki, Kagoshima Prefecture. That’s Kyushu island, located in southwest Japan. Using the pole-and-line fishing method, fish die without struggling. Because of that, the ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in the fish’s body, an energy substance to move muscles, turns into inosinic acid, an umami component.

On the other hand, when using round haul netting, a popular fishing method over the past 30 years, bonito can be caught in large numbers more efficiently. The downside of this method is that the fish struggles a lot in the net, consuming ATP and losing a substance that translates to umami when the fish is cooked. Besides, a bonito dies after a struggle will have produced a huge amount of lactic acid, which makes the bonito flesh sour. You can see in the photo the broken tails and other damage caused by struggling bonito. This is the reason why tasty dried bonito must be caught through pole-and-line fishing.

After being caught, a bonito will be filleted by taking away the big bones and innards. The cut pieces will be placed in steel baskets for simmering. For two hours, the fish will be simmered without boiling. According to Taizo, this is the most important manual labor process during the making of the best katsuobushi. After simmering, the remaining bones will be removed, the body will be cooled off and then delivered to a drying chamber. In the chamber, the bonito will be

dried near burning firewood for three to four days. After that, the bonito will be left to rest for another four days or so. The fire may burn for up to two months at a time. The work of removing water from the fish will be done repeatedly before drying is complete.

After being dried, the outer surface will be cleaned by slicing off the tar. The bonito is now ready for molding. By utilizing microorganisms, the bonito will become harder and better preserved. In a nutshell, the bonito will be fermented with blue mold. The process takes three months, but no additives or preservatives are added. Only all-natural dried bonito molded with blue mold can be named “True Dried Bonito” (“Hongarebushi”). If you hit two dried bonitoes together, they clang. It sounds like metal. That’s why people believe dried bonito is the hardest fermented food in the world.

Blue mold will not only absorb moisture from the bonito but also resolve the fat and turn it into protein which contains essential amino acids. This process is the secret of the food’s enchanting aroma and umami. It will take an average of five to six months from catching the bonito to its arrival at a dried bonito wholesaler. But this is not the end of the story.

As a wholesaler, after Taizo receives the dried bonito, he matures it fully. It’s like maturing wine. Until the dried bonitos become ready for consumption, he “nurtures” the products while waiting for ripening. The period of maturation is between three months to two years. The dashi liquid exuded from the authentic dried bonitos is so clear and clean, but rich.

Why does Taizo have to be this particular about the product? Taking several months before shipping the product to stores doesn’t seem very efficient. “This should never be a rare special treatment, this is how it should be every time,” said Taizo. “It’s a fact that there is a lot of sloppily dried bonito is being sold as real dried bonito on the market. I want to deliver only good products.”

Then, how can we discern the difference between good and sloppy dried bonito? In recent years, its wholesale presence has been fading in Japan along with the surge of direct-from-the-farm online shopping. Farm-fresh distribution has become very popular over the past several years. By eliminating the wholesale process, consumers can purchase less expensively. Price is such a strong decision-making element for today’s Japan after more than two decades of deflationary spiraling. “However, we have reached a point where we should mend that purchasing habit we have of buying only what is the cheapest,” Taizo insists.

It is natural that consumers cannot tell what is great dried bonito, or even whether it is really dried bonito at all. We are not usually exposed to the authentic product. And then, the price tends to be an easy criterion for decision-making. Many consumers tend to buy cheaper things at the cost of quality. This might mean that detrimental food might be going into human stomachs.

“I hope consumers rely on wholesaler’s connoisseurship and choose naturally fermented, authentic dried bonito. The producers’ wholehearted labor is infused into such products. It is safe and ends up with serving our health,” Taizo said. “I hope Japanese consumers can be comfortable with the philosophy that good things should never be cheap.”

You can buy almost anything on- and off-line these days. But what are your criteria when you buy something? Do you have a clear standard in purchasing behavior? Attractive advertisements offer appealing low prices, and consumers get affected by the message. The purchasing behavior of buying just because it’s cheap is much more obstinate than we imagine. This is where an honest wholesaler comes in!

Taizo sorts out about 600 dried bonitos a day by grade. About 180,000 dried bonitos a year are viewed by him. That’s why he does not miss scars or cracks on the surface and can tell what the taste will be as well as the optimal cooking time for any particular dried bonito. This ability is the most significant aspect of today’s wholesaler’s existence, he says.

“I am not merely distributing products from manufactures to consumers, and I don’t discount because good things cost more and are valuable. My mission as a wholesaler is to select truly good products for consumers and price the product in a fair way,” Taizo said. Consuming a truly good product at the right price may not be a luxury or a waste of money; it is probably worth the cost.

Story by Motomi Takahashi

Photos provided by Taiko