Bonito flakes aren’t well known outside of Japanese cuisine, but they are extremely important to many Japanese dishes.
They are also famous for “dancing” when you put them on top of hot dishes, almost like the bonito flakes came to life.
The flavor of bonito flakes is the product of a long and painstaking smoking and fermenting process, but the result is a distinctive flavor and texture that you need to taste to understand.
What Are Bonito Flakes?
In Japanese cuisine, Bonito flakes are called Katsuobushi.
They are made from Bonito fish, also known as skipjack tuna, during long and very difficult drying, smoking, and fermenting processes that can take up to 6 months to complete.
When the bonito has been smoked and fermented, it is shaved into extremely thin slices – bonito flakes.
Bonito flakes are often eaten right out of the bag or used as a garnish or topping for sushi, ramen, and other important Japanese dishes. Bonito flakes add a saltiness, smokiness, and umami flavor to whatever you are eating.
Famously, bonito flakes seem to “come alive” when you sprinkle them onto hot food. This is because they are dried and in the process of reabsorbing water they can shift and refold themselves in what appears to be a kind of living dance.
There is no need to worry though, Bonito flakes are not alive – they are just rehydrating.
The most important use of Bonito flakes is to create the essential Japanese broth – dashi. Adding bonito flakes to hot water allows all of the rich umami flavors to steep, creating a rich, salty, and meaty broth.
What Do Bonito Flakes Look Like?
Although chefs will sometimes buy an entire smoked and fermented bonito fish themselves and shave off bonito flakes as necessary using a specific Japanese style grater that shaves the flakes into a wooden box, the most common way most people enjoy bonito flakes is out of a package, pre-shaved.
The flakes are incredibly thin, almost translucent, with a light pink color.
What Texture Do Bonito Flakes Have?
It would be accurate to say bonito flakes are kind of simmered, smoked, and fermented fish jerky, but they don’t have the chewy, rubbery texture of jerky.
Bonito flakes are shaved so thin that they melt in your mouth, and are easy to eat.
Types Of Bonito Flakes
There are two kinds of bonito flakes, made in different styles in Japan.
Almost 80% of the bonito flakes on the market come from this variety of katsuobushi, which is cheaper and easier to produce. Arabushi is dried and smoked, but not fermented.
It takes less time to produce and has a moisture content of approximately 19-22%. Arabushi produces a dashi broth that is smokey, salty, and gently acidic.
Under 20% of the bonito flakes are made from karebushi, which has mold applied to it. This helpful bacteria remove more of the moisture content from the fish and contributes to the flavor.
A very specific mold and dry process must be repeated many times to create a karebushi with a moisture content of only 14-17%.
Karebushi is much more expensive than Arabushi, and authentic “honkarebushi” made in the traditional Japanese style can take up to 6 months to produce. When steeped, karebushi makes a wholesome, aromatic, and delicious dashi.
Where Do Bonito Flakes Come From?
The process of making bonito flakes is a long and involved one, and it starts with a fresh skipjack tuna.
First, the fish must be cleaned – the head and guts removed, and the fillets prepared. The fillets must be arranged carefully so that they don’t fall apart during the simmering process.
The fish is simmered first to lightly cook for several hours, and the duration and temperature of the cooking process has a major effect on the result.
After the fish is simmered, it must be deboned: the tiny fish bones are removed with tweezer-like tools so that the fillets are boneless. This precise process can’t be performed by machines.
When the bones are removed, the grooves and indentations where the bones are filled in with a fish paste to create a seamless exterior.
The fillets are smoked 6-15 times. When they are finished, the fillets are completed Arabushi.
The next steps transform Arabushi into Karebushi, by applying mold. Over several months, the bonito is sun-dried, and mold cultures are applied and reapplied to preserve the fish and bring out the flavor.
Are Bonito Flakes Healthy?
Yes! Bonito flakes are very healthy, and adding them to your diet can give you a nutritional boost.
Bonito flakes are high in protein and contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs. They are also rich in important nutrients like iron, selenium, potassium, niacin, and B12.
Studies show that eating bonito flakes can help improve mental alertness and acuity when people are fatigued and lower blood pressure.
There is even some evidence to suggest that eating bonito flakes can help by increasing blood flow, and studies on obesity in mice and rats have shown that bonito flakes may assist in weight loss.
Bonito flakes are a healthy ingredient that you shouldn’t shy away from adding to your diet.
What Are The Dangers Of Eating Bonito Flakes?
Bonito flakes are generally very safe to eat, and are unlikely to cause allergic reactions or issues for most people. However, there has been some controversy about the safety of bonito flakes.
As of 2015, the EU has banned katsuobushi as an unsafe food.
Their reasoning is twofold, and it applies to both Arabushi and Karebushi.
EU regulators argue that the drying and smoking process can lead to the formation of a carcinogenic chemical called Benzopyrene, which could potentially exceed the levels that are safe for human consumption.
There is a lot of variability in the smoking and drying processes among producers, so not all bonito flakes were found to be unsafe, but the process was unstable enough that limits were set and bonito flakes were banned.
The second issue that EU regulators found was the mold. Karebushi is produced using bacteria that preserve the fish and bring out distinct flavors. However, regulators determined that this mold could potentially lead to mold poisoning.
Bonito flakes are widely eaten and enjoyed, both in Japan and around the world, and there have not been major health issues correlated to eating bonito flakes.
Nevertheless, the possible health issues around bonito flakes have been raised before.
How Do You Eat Bonito Flakes?
Maybe the simplest way to enjoy bonito flakes is straight out of the bag!
Many people like to snack on bonito flakes the way you would snack on chips – while watching a movie or going about their day.
To take it a little further, you can sprinkle bonito flakes on your meal to bring out a bit of extra smokey, umami flavor. Bonito flakes are the perfect complement and garnish to bowls of ramen, sushi rolls, or onigiri.
Of course, to enjoy the full richness of bonito flakes, you must make the traditional Japanese broth – dashi kombu. The flavor of bonito flakes in dashi is something truly special, which is why it has been called the heart of Japanese cuisine.
How Can I Store Bonito Flakes?
The key to preserving your Katsuobushi is to keep it dry.
The reason bonito flakes “dance” when they are added to hot food is because the steam emanating from the dish is rehydrating them.
Bonito flakes are delicious on steamy meals or when steeped into a rich dashi, but they don’t last long like this. As soon as your bonito flakes are rehydrated, they are at risk of going bad.
When you put your bonito flakes away, expel every bit of air from the bag by rolling it up tightly, and keep it in a cool and dry place. If the bag you bought your bonito flakes in is not resealable, use an airtight container.
If your home or kitchen is humid and you can’t control that, you are probably better off keeping bonito flakes in the freezer.
If you keep bonito flakes sealed tightly in a dry place, they should be good for 6 months to a year.
Can You freeze Bonito Flakes?
Yes. If you live in a humid climate, you should add your bonito flakes to a sealed, airtight container, and keep them in the freezer. They should last there for up to 2 years.
Bonito Flakes Nutrition Information
|Per 100g bonito flakes, according to Nutritionvalue.org|
Quick Table: Bonito Recipes
|Rice With Soy Glazed Bonito Flakes And Sesame Seeds||56||45 minutes|
|Japanese Okra With Bonito Flakes||25||7 minutes|
|Wasabi Chicken Wings With Scallions And Bonito Flakes||1190||12 minutes|
This recipe is so simple, but it’s one that you’ll come back to again and again as a side dish and a snack. It is stunningly delicious, and also very convenient.
You can reuse the bonito flakes you use to make dashi, by using them in this recipe to create a delicious topping for rice.
A little sake, sugar, and soya sauce are all it takes to turn your (already used!) bonito flakes into a delicious candied garnish that turns a simple bowl of rice into a gourmet snack.
Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes
Bonito flakes add a meaty, salty, smoky flavor that can absolutely transform some of the plainest ingredients out there into meals that your mouth will water for. There is no better example than this simple recipe for Japanese boiled okra.
Okra is a common ingredient in the cuisine of the Southern United States, but it’s not as commonly used in other places. It has a strong, vegetable taste and a slightly slimy texture when boiled.
Adding soya sauce and bonito flakes transforms the taste and elevates it into a delicious snack or meal.
Total Preparation Time: 7 minutes
Japanese flavors have been finding their way into western snacks and comfort foods for a long time now, starting with teriyaki.
These days you can find plenty of Japanese-inspired chicken wings out there, including this incredible recipe for a sauce based on spicy wasabi.
These chicken wings would be fantastic in their own right, with a subtle and complex flavor imparted by the hot wasabi, rice wine vinegar, honey, mayonnaise, and sesame oil, but the addition of bonito flakes take the entire presentation to an entirely new level.
Total Preparation Time: 12 minutes
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Bonito Flakes Made From Tuna?
Traditionally, bonito flakes are made only from bonito fish, known also as skipjack tuna. However, in practice, bonito flakes may be made from some other types of fish, including subspecies of mackerel.
If you want to make sure you are getting the highest quality bonito flakes made from real skipjack tuna, you should search out the truly authentic honkarebushi made in Japan.
What Do You Put Bonito Flakes On?
You can add bonito flakes to practically anything! However, they are an especially popular addition to common Japanese meals like sushi, ramen, and onigiri.
Don’t let that limit you, however! Experiment for yourself by adding bonito flakes to anything you like, to add a rich and smokey dimension of flavor.
What Is Similar To Bonito Flakes?
There is nothing quite like bonito flakes, especially when it comes to adding a ton of meaty, umami flavor to a dish.
If a recipe calls for bonito flakes they might quite hard to replace. You can reach directly for MSG (monosodium glutamate), which will add some of that umami flavor, but it won’t provide the depth of flavor you can achieve with bonito flakes.
The best substitutes for bonito flakes are ingredients that impart lots of umami. Some of the top contenders are Nori or Kombu seaweed, both of which carry a rich and earthy umami flavor.
If you can’t get either of those, some fish-based alternatives are baby anchovies or mackerel powder. As a last resort, dried shiitake mushrooms have an earthy umami wholesomeness that can cover a part of what bonito flakes do.
Do Bonito Flakes Have Mercury?
If you’re aware that bonito flakes are made from skipjack tuna, a fish at the top of the aquatic food chain and a species vulnerable to mercury bioaccumulation, you might be slightly worried about the mercury content in your bonito flakes.
Thankfully, there is nothing to be concerned about.
Bonito fish are regularly monitored to make sure that mercury levels are safe for human consumption. The levels of mercury in bonito flakes are well within acceptable limits.
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