Everyone knows fish can swim, and a few overachieving fish can fly. But in Japan, they can dance.
Bonito flakes—the dried, smoked shavings of skipjack tuna—are so light that any amount of steam makes them waver and curl, as if swayed by an ocean current. As a result, the pink flakes move when placed atop hot dishes.
Also known as katsuobushi, each pile of bonito flakes begins with a smoked and dried tuna. Japanese manufacturers coat the tuna in a special type of mold and leave it in the sun to age for several months (or sometimes years). Then they take the dried, hardened fish and start shaving.
Making these fine flakes the traditional way requires a shaving tool known as a katsuobushi plane. So if you’ve got the patience, you can create them from the comfort of your own home. But most people opt for buying bonito flakes prepackaged from grocery stores.
Bonito flakes dance atop a wide array of Japanese dishes, where they enhance the smoky, salty flavor of umami. Home cooks rely on katsuobushi to make dashi, a staple fish broth. Chefs and street vendors also top off popular dishes like okonomiyaki (a kind of savory pancake) and takoyaki (octopus-stuffed fried dough balls) with bonito flakes, and add them to the center of onigiri (stuffed rice balls). Cats, on the other hand, enjoy their katsuobushi straight up.