Any time I have ever mentioned bonito flakes, either online or in this thing called "real life", one very well meaning person will say, "I thought those were for cats." While it's true the a cat would find them very pleasing, these feathery, savoury and smoky flakes are best enjoyed by humans, who are more equipped to appreciate the umami-packed delicacy.
Photo: Claire Lower
What are bonito flakes?
Bonito flakes, also known as katsuobushi, are little wisps of dried, fermented skipjack tuna (or in some cases, the cheaper bonito), used in Japanese cooking to for their smoky, intensely savoury, slightly fishy flavour. The flavour is somewhere in between anchovies and bacon, but much more delicate than either one.
You can purchase them at most fancy grocery stores, at all Asian grocery stores, and online.
How do you use them?
Bonito flakes, along with kombu, are one of the primary ingredients in dashi - a savoury stock that is ubiquitous in Japanese cooking - but they can be thrown in or on any dish that needs a boost in the savoury department.
But before we talk about bonito as a topper, we should talk about dashi, because everyone should know how to make dashi. Though you can find instant dashi granules, there's really no good reason to purchase them, as it can be made very easily with just three ingredients.
The above video from Just One Cookbook can walk you through the process of making the glutamate-heavy stock; to follow along at home, you will need:
- 1L of water
- 20g kombu
- 30g bonito flakes
Pour the water in a sauce pan, make a few slits in the seaweed, and set the kombu in the water for at least 30 minutes or up to five hours. Heat the pan over medium heat, skimming any floaty bits off as needed, until the water barely starts to simmer. Remove the kombu, add the bonito, and let it simmer for 30 seconds.
Remove the pot from the heat, and let the stock sit for about 10 minutes. Strain everything through a sieve, and use the golden liquid as you would any other stock. (Save the bonito flakes and stir them into some hot rice along with an egg.)
Beyond dashi, bonito flakes make the most delightful garnish I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Yes, they bring umami to everything you put them on, but they literally dance when sprinkled over hot food. They are fantastic over butter-sauteed edamame, any and all noodles, pretty much every rice dish (or a bowl of plain rice), and popcorn.
Basically, I think of bonito flakes as the "Parmesan of the ocean", and use it accordingly. Does this mean I put them on pizza? Yes, yes it does. Does that make me a genius? Maybe. That's for the history books to decide.