Food

All About Katsuobushi, Bonito Flakes, and Which Japanese Brands to Buy (for You and Your Cat, the Ultimate Cat Treat)

Image courtesy of Makurazaki marine products processing industries cooperative.

Fresh skipjack tuna/bonito (katsuo) that is gutted, sliced, simmered, fire smoked, sun-dried, and fermented produces a product that is rock-hard. They then shaved these fillets into shavings that are used to produce a savory fish stock that is at the heart of Japanese cuisine (and the ultimate cat treat I have termed “catsuobushi”).

Katsuobushi is core to Japanese food (Washoku), and you will find it in a million and one dishes from miso soup, udon and soba soup bases, ramen tare, okonomiyaki, and as a takoyaki topping, to a whole lot more (such as uses for you feline friends).

Out of ease, I think most Americans refer to katsuobushi as ‘bonito’ although some others, who I am sure are fine people may call it ‘skipjack tuna’ (that is also correct tho).

Photo Description: an illustration provided by the Bio Diversity Library of the bonito fish.
In Japan, it’s the skipjack tuna/bonito that defines Japanese cuisine versus our much-beloved heifer. Image by the Bio Diversity Library.

If you had miso soup, you “most likely” had a form of katsuobushi before.

I say “most likely” because a lot of restaurants go the easy route with Ajinomoto Hon-dashi which is packed with ‘seaweed’ and bonito ‘essence’ versus using katsuobushi flakes/shavings.

Everything You Need to Know Without Having to Learn Japanese or a Ton of Reading

Remember when you were required to write in paragraph form? Yea? Well I do too, and do not plan on doing that because who wants to read it? The answer is nobody which is why I am presenting all the information in simple “easy to read, read what you want to know” form aka bullet points. This allows you to scroll quickly through the content to get the gist of what you want to know.

Katsuo” means skipjack tuna/bonito in Japanese (in case you are a Yelp Elite, it’s not the same as tonkatsu, tonkotsu, katsudon, or catsup).

Photo Description: a shot of a finished block of katsuobushi. Several blocks are placed in wooden bins.
Pure concentrated savory smoky fish flavor in Japanese “fish stick” form. Image by Jun Seita

First, the Katsuobushi Basics

On top of simmering, fire smoked, and sun-dried, the fermenting of skipjack tuna is what elevates the flavor (for a true ‘hon’ dried fillet).

Type of Japanese Skipjack Tuna/Bonito (Katsuo) Products

The variations of katsuobushi range from the parts of the fish used to produce katsuobushi, the extent of the production process that the katsuo undergoes, to the final product which consists of varying types of cuts and shavings used for dashi (soup stock) to products used as a food topping. Each product variation is denoted by their Japanese name which is a lot to take in, and since we already have to learn Italian in order to order a small to a large cup of coffee at a Seattle-based American business, I will try to make everything as easy as possible.

  1. Arabushi (ara-bushi): is smoked dried skipjack tuna.
  2. Hadakabushi (hadaka-bushi): arabushi is sun-dried for a couple days more with the surface fat removed and shaped.
  3. Karebushi (kare-bushi): is the full process, along with the latter half of the process which involves the fat being shaved off the surface of arabushi (hadakabushi) and the sun-drying and mold application being repeated twice.
  4. Honkarebushi (honkare-bushi): “true dried fillet” is the finest of all karebsuhi because the latter half of the process of sun-drying and mold application is cycled through multiple times.
Photo Description: multiple bins filled with shaved katsuobushi or what Americans call "bonito flakes."
If only somebody would do this with a BBQ brisket. Image by Sophie.

Final Product Types (Kezuribushi “Shavings”)

  • “Bonito flakes”: used primarily as a topping or mixed in with dishes like “okaka onigiri.
  • Hanakatsuo (shavings): thinly shaved arabushi, pale pink flakes with the dark red meat completely to partially removed.
  • Kezurikatsuo (thicker cuts): often used for dashi stock.

All the brands of katsuobushi you can find in the states at a local Japanese market or online (your oriental aisle probably will not make the cut).

Katsuobushi Brands that Cater to English Speaking and American Consumers

Out of all the brands, Yamaki is the most dedicated to U.S. consumers with their U.S. presence in Forest Grove, Oregon. Except, I won’t just be just hyping up their efforts and here are several more worth a look:

Photo Description: Tetsujin vs. "Other Brand." Tetsujin is marked non-GMO, thin sliced, Large Flakes, and Wood Smoked.
When do you see a Japanese company do any sort of marketing? (Never, exactly which is why I had to post this).

Just wish I knew who is this “other brand” is.

  • JFC International (www.jfc.com): is a major wholesaler and distributor of Asian food products in the United States.
  • Kaneso: no US presence, but they are touted as the most popular katsuobushi sold on Amazon.com
  • Marutomo (www.marutomo.co.jp): No US presence aside from the massive efforts of their distributor, Nishimoto Trading Co (Wismettac).
  • Ninben (www.ninben.jp): A dedicated English website where you can read about the company and how they were established in 1699.
  • Tetsujin: The company has a nicely done presence on Amazon where they state: “Tetsujin brand Bonito Flake is sourced directly from Japan, first we select only the finest katsuo, it is then expertly smoked by a traditional katsuo maker that has been making katsuo since the Shōwa era.”
  • Yamahide: no US presence aside from their retail efforts.
  • Yamaki (www.yamakiusa.com): 100 years of perfection, the history of Yamaki began in 1917, by founder Toyokichi Kido in Iyo-city, Ehime, Japan. Yamaki is single-mindedly focused on producing high-quality bonito flakes and Japanese dashi broth for over 100 years with a gold of holding true to culinary tradition. As of March 2018, Yamaki USA was established in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Looking to buy online? These are the top places to buy Japanese ingredients to kitchen products online.

Enough with the wood, time to shave some tuna bro.

Photo Description: a rectangular wooden box with a small drawer on the bottom with a metal shaver on top. The shavings are go directly into the enclosed drawer.
What is in the tiny drawer, fish shavings because it beats a drawer full of socks (Kotobuki).

What You Need to Shave Your Own Katsuobushi

Kezuriki (katsuobushi shaver): if you are a wood worker, and you have ever used a wood plane, you have a future in shaving your own katsuobushi. Below are a few of the brands available to American consumers.

  • Tenpaku, Nihon Ichiban (Made in Japan): $163.50, a 4th generation grater box specialist
  • Kotobuki, Amazon (Made in Japan): $169.95, Kotobuki Trading is an import and wholesale company located in South San Francisco, California. 
  • Tikusan, Amazon (Made in Japan): $110.00, ??, through their FB presence “we sell mainly Japanese cooking utensils and other products from Japan and China through Amazon.”

I just had to look up how much a wood plane would cost compared to a specialized kezuriki, and it looks like a whole lot cheaper. A Japanese pull plane (intended for woodworkers, but what’s the difference aside from the built-in compartment?)

  • Senkichi (they do not disclose where the product are ‘made in’ for a reason): $11.90. Except, where it is made does not matter when they have a 4-star rating and 1,069 reviews on Amazon.
  • Kakuri (Made in Japan): $24.80.
Photo Description: a large cube of tofu in a soy based dashi with large flakes of bonito placed atop.
If we could or had BBQ brisket in shaved form, I’m sure we would be putting it on tofu too. Image by Alpha.

Still want to learn more, read on (for all you AP students).

Overview of Katsuobushi

  • What is chiai: is referring to the dark meat which is stronger in flavor.
  • Made in: all of the products listed above are products of Japan.
  • The finished katsuobushi fillet: is extremely hard and is often touted as the world’s hardest food.
  • How long does it take to produce katsuobushi: honkarebushi takes at least several months to produce (the most labor intensive of the types).
  • How is katsuobushi utilized: it is consumed at varying degrees of shaving thicknesses to entire fillets and thicker cuts (kezurikatsuo). These varying cuts are used for creating a soup stock to use as a popular topping (flakes/shavings).
  • How is katsuobushi primarily used: the most common is as dashi called “awasedashi” which is the combination of katsuobushi (skipjack tuna) and konbu (sea kelp).
  • How does honkarebushi look: the outer finish of katsuobushi is very dull although the cross-section is typically a translucent dark red.
  • A popular cat treat: not only do millions of humans love it, cats apparently do too (Amazon reviewers are more than happy to make that known).
  • The varying cuts: two cuts of meat are cut away from the spine, yielding the two fillets which are called kamebushi. Further down, they are broken down into sebushi (back part)/osubushi (“male fillets” of the back) to harabushi/mesubushi (“female fillets” of the belly).
  • how to store katsuobushi: once a package has been opened and exposed, the product will begin the oxidize. So the product is best when kept in an airtight container and refrigerated.

If you have a cat, your cat will love you for this (if you are also an Amazon Prime member, you will love to let everybody know that your cat loves it too).

Too Hilarious How Katsuobushi or What I Call “Catsuobushi, the Ultimate Cat Treat”

In the United States, cat lovers are buying katsuobushi as a cat treats and there are a ton of reviews with “cats love it.” The douchey downside is that a number of cat owners are responding to legitimate questions that are not cat related because they are on a crusade to tout how they give it to their cats (settle down there).

Photo Description: a Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock print of the making of dried fish (katsuobushi).
Are there any woodblock prints of you making the McRib during your work shift? Well, there is a print of making the famous dried fish, katsuobushi (Numazu, meibutsu katsuobushi o seisu), 1797-1858 by Utagawa Hiroshige.

A Ton of Resources (This Post Took a TON of Them)

This post took forever to produce due to the amount of inconsistency of information on the internet and difficulty finding correlating imagery although it would not have been possible without the resources below.

  • The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research (TKFD.or.jp) on Dried Bonito The article is generically titled, but it’s about preserving traditional skills used to produce katsuobushi, except consumers are getting more accustomed to chemical alternatives.
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (Web Japan). There are all too many sources online that “regurgitate information, so coming to a consensus on what is true vs. not true is a challenge. One reason I am citing and utilizing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because they feel like they are on point.
  • Katsuobushi-jp.net. Makurazaki city in the Kagoshima prefecture is touted as Japan’s best regional katsuobushi producer, and they have a website to tout that. This resource is the effort of Makurasaki Marine products processing industries cooperative, so how could I go wrong with basing the content from here?
  • Sonoko Sakai’s article on: Arabushi, arakezuri, hanakatsuo, itokezuri, karebushi, kezurikatsuo, to honkarebushi. If you want to learn all the variations explained to you by Sonoko Sakai, read her Los Angeles Times article from 2012, who by the way is a Japanese-American writer (an actual writer, unlike the stuff I spew out) and cooking teacher that also just celebrated her 76th birthday. A side note tho’, I’m confused that her Wikipedia profile says that her birth name was Marie Kondo? Yet, there’s that organizing consultant Marie Kondo?
  • Meshiagare “Enjoy Real Japanese Taste from Traditional to Current Trends.” A very tiny website although they seem to have some very accurate information – better than the vast majority of large media outlets.
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