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Dashi, the heart of Japanese cooking

Nikujaga-braised sukiyaki-style beef with potatoes and onions.
Nikujaga-braised sukiyaki-style beef with potatoes and onions. (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles Times)

At the heart of so much of Japanese cooking is the fragrant broth called dashi. And at the heart of dashi are the delicate pink petals of katsuobushi, shaved flakes of dried bonito fish.

When steeped with the dried seaweed called konbu, katsuobushi gives dashi its irresistible aroma and deep umami flavor. Despite being made in minutes, the stock is the foundation of many Japanese dishes — miso soup, salad dressings, sauces for noodles, even meat stews.

"Dashi is like the key actor in a movie," says 83-year-old Chobei Yagi, whose 275-year-old store, Tokyo's Yagicho Honten, specializes in katsuobushi and other dried foods. "But dashi always plays the supporting role, never the star."

FOR THE RECORD:

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Japanese cooking: In the Jan. 26 Food section, an article about making and using the Japanese stock called dashi misspelled a type of konbu, or seaweed, that can be used as rikyu. It is rishiri. —

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katsuobushi

today comes pre-sliced in plastic bags, which is convenient and allows one to make

dashi

from scratch in less than 15 minutes, but there is another level of truly great

katsuobushi —

artisanal

arabushi

-style

katsuobushi

and the maturer

karebushi

- and

hongarebushi

-style

katsuobushi.

These are sold in thick blocks, with brown surfaces coated in sun-dried mold. They look more like works of art than food, and maybe they are.

Katsuobushi

was originally called

kata-uo

, or "hard fish," and at one time every home cook owned a wooden plane, called a

katsuobushi kezuriki

, to shave what was needed. Store-bought sliced

katsuobushi

has now become the norm. In the United States, we almost always find only sliced

katsuobushi

; there just is not enough demand for the old-fashioned whole stuff to import it. It is mostly at specialty stores in Japan, such as Yagicho, where you can buy

katsuobushi

whole.

And it must be said that while there is nothing that can beat the tantalizing fragrance of freshly shaven bonito flakes, the modern method of packing is so advanced, the sliced petals do taste pretty darn fresh.

The most popular, multipurpose

dashi

is made with a combination of dried bonito flakes and

konbu

. The naturally occuring inosinic acid in

katsuobushi

and glutamic acid in

konbu

have a synergistic effect on flavor. "One plus one becomes three or more on the umami scale," says Yagi.

In modern times, Yagi laments that excessive use of oil, salt and chemically seasoned foods are making Japanese people forget the natural flavors of foods like

katsuobushi

. "There is nothing so delightful as food made under the sun," he says.

One place that really cares about preserving the artisanal

katsuobushi

tradition is the city of Yaezu, Shizuoka, on Surugua Bay near Mt. Fuji, about an hour's bullet train ride from Tokyo. The production of

katsuobushi

is one of Yaezu's main industries; the city has designated the art of making it the artisanal way,

mukei bunkazai

, or living cultural treasure.

About 100,000 to 120,000 tons of frozen bonito (also known as skipjack tuna) caught in the South Pacific and frozen on the boat, are brought to the port of Yaezu annually. The imported fish is favored over domestic Japanese bonito because of its lower fat content, which makes the

katsuobushi

taste milder and less fishy.

Tokuya Kuno, just over 30 years old, is president of Shin Marusho, his family's 75-year-old

katsuobushi

factory based in Yaezu, which employees about 80 people. He grew up watching his father and grandfather make

katsuobushi

and never thought of becoming anything but a

katsuobushi

producer.

Kuno's grandfather developed the award-winning Suruga Fubuki (Storm of Suruga) brand. The bonito flakes are light and delicate, resembling the fragile petals of cherry trees in springtime. About 80% of Shin Marusho's

katsuobushi

product is the smoke-dried

arabushi

that is predominant in the Japanese marketplace.

To make

arabushi

, the bonito is cut up and cooked, then the fat, scales and bones are removed carefully (and used for fish extracts and fertilizer — "nothing is wasted," says Kuno). The fillets are then smoked slowly over mostly oak wood at varying temperatures for several days, with rests in between. The bonito, which can be as large as 6 pounds before cooking, shrinks by about 20% by the time the drying process is complete. On a busy day, one

katsuobushi

worker may gut, slice and clean as many as 150 bonito.

While

arabushi

takes about 30 days to complete,

karebushi

and

hongarebushi

are made by processing

arabushi

several steps further.

Arabushi

is reshaped, the "tar" that coats the surface after cooking is removed and then the exterior is deliberately innoculated with a beneficial fungus,

aspergillus glacus

, in order to reduce the moisture further. The fungus is shaved and the fish is sun-dried repeatedly, three times for

karebushi

and even more for

hongarebushi

, taking as long as six months for the block to reach its full maturity.

Karebushi

and

hongarebushi

are favored for the full and elegant aroma they give

dashi

.

Arabushi

has a smokier smell; it's the most popular

katsuobushi

and is favored by soba and tempura chefs.

Katsuobushi

and

konbu dashi

are made with

katsuobushi

and a piece of

konbu

seaweed, which are sold by type —

hidaka

,

raus

,

rikyu

— or as

dashi konbu

. Choose

konbu

that has some thickness and doesn't look wafery and fragile. Basically, the two ingredients are steeped in hot water and strained from the broth.

Making fresh

dashi

is about as easy as infusing tea leaves to make a cup of tea. No wonder miso soup, which is primarily made from

dashi

, is traditionally served in Japan as a quick breakfast soup.

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