Katsuobushi - A quintessential "piece of wood"
It seems that Katsuobushi was born to complete the rich cuisine of Japan, as well as to demonstrate the meticulousness, ingenuity, and talent of Japanese chefs.
When you had Takoyaki for the first time, were you startled to see thin and fragile "creatures" that keep "swaying in the wind"? Don't be surprised! That is Katsuobushi - a famous dish and also the soul ingredient of many other delicate dishes in Japan.
Katsuobushi has another funny name as wooden fish since it will be as hard as a piece of wood after being processed. Katsuobushi is made from Striped bonito. It takes a lot of elaboration and meticulousness to make a decent "piece of wood".
- First, the head and internal organs are removed before the remaining is cut into 4 fillets
- After the fillets are boiled on low heat for a few hours, they are deboned
- Next, fish paste is applied on each fillet to fill in cracks and lines resulting from bone removal
- The fillets are smoked for about 5-6 hours and left to rest for 1 day, then the smoking process is repeated.
The total time for smoking can take up to 1 month.
- Next, the smoked fillets are sprayed with kōji mold (Aspergillus glaucus) - a fungus usually used during Sake brewing process, left for the mold to grow for about two weeks. Then they remove the mold, dry the fillets in the sun and apply the mold again.
This process is repeated at least 2 times until the fillet becomes hard and has an amber color like a piece of wood with only 1/5 of its original weight.
For some special types of fish flakes, the whole process can take for more than 2 years.
To enjoy this special dish, you need a special shaving instrument called Kezuriki. This is a wooden box with a very sharp blade above and a drawer below to keep the fish flakes.
Katsuobushi is the soul of famous Japanese dishes such as Hiyayakko (chilled tofu) and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) or it can also work with Kombu dried kelp to make Miso soup, etc.
I first had Katsuobushi when I was eating Takoyaki. The hot, round, and ping-pong-like Takoyaki sprinkled with a thin layer of fish flakes and a little bit of sauce can trigger anyone's appetite.
At first, I thought it was dried squid and wondered why it was so thin. However, after one bite, I could feel the salty and fragrant taste of fish melt in my mouth, and it did not have any uncomfortable smell. That is what makes Takoyaki taste great! Indeed, without Katsuobushi, Takoyaki would lose half of its soul.
Although Katsuobushi can go with a lot of food, my favorite dish would always be Hiyayakko (chilled tofu) with Katsuobushi.
This dish is made from very soft tofu sprinkled with some Katsuobushi and Dashi sauce. How appetizing! The soft and cool taste of the tofu combining with the lightly salty and fragrant fish flakes and sweet Dashi sauce create a flawless symphony that can conquer even the most demanding guest.
When enjoying this dish, I can feel the warmth in the mainland, at the same time feeling the salty sea breeze and hearing the sound of waves crashing on the shore. For me, Hiyayakko without Katsuobushi would be just another ordinary, plain, and tasteless young tofu cubes.
The more I am exposed to, learn, and experience this elaborate cuisine, the more I fall in love with Japan, with each delicate dish, and this hard but magical "piece of wood".
What a unique dish with an equally unique ingredient! I'm sure you will also fall in love with the Katsuobushi - a piece of wood from the very first try!
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