The Japanese Table
Bonito Flakes, "Cherry" Shrimp and Dried Codby Kazuyoshi Shitomi and Isao Kumakura
Dried, preserved foods have been an essential part of traditional Japanese food culture for centuries; their legacy continues into the present. These foods are known as kanbutsu, and in this final installment of our series on dried foods, we focus on three versatile fish products.
Today, we hear praises sung of pre-prepared and instant foods in a “fast-food” culture. But behind the scenes are “slow foods” that have never lost their appeal: kanbutsu are an integral component of Japan’s national menu, and are still very much a part of people’s lives.
Bonito Flakes – Katsuobushi
In Japan, bonito is most popularly served as sashimi, slices of raw fish served with tasty condiments. But it is also widely used in cooking in the form of bonito flakes, or katsuobushi. Katsuobushi is one of the basic flavors of Japanese cooking, and is used to make the stock that plays an important supporting role in daily cooking. This stock is the basis of various soups and simmered dishes. The flavorsome and aromatic flakes are also a favorite topping for side dishes such as blanched spinach (o-hitashi) and chilled tofu (hiya-yakko).
Katsuobushi flakes are made by a complicated process. First, the bonito is boned, producing two fillets. Usually, each of the two fillets is then cut in half along its length, making long "blocks," one from the back of the fish and the other from the belly, for a total of four blocks. In the next two steps the fillets are boiled, then smoked. In the final stages, the surface of the cured fillets is cleaned and trimmed and the fillets are sealed in wooden boxes in a room where high humidity is maintained to encourage the growth of mold. The mold-covered fish are dried in the sun to enhance the flavor; these last steps are then repeated several times.
The smoking process, using oak and cherry wood, is repeated eight to ten times; the cultivating of mold is repeated four or five times. Because of the complexity of this process, katsuobushi is produced in only a few areas, mainly in Japan's southern Kagoshima and Shizuoka prefectures. It is thought that this present-day form of making katsuobushi may have been developed in the early eighteenth century.
Traditionally, a household purchased whole blocks of cured bonito, and flakes were shaved off as needed for daily cooking needs using a kitchen utensil called a katsuobushi kezuri-ki. This device is now rarely seen except in fine restaurants, as most households use pre-shaved katsuobushi, available in plastic packets.
Classic broth for clear soups (suimono) is made by boiling a strip of dried kelp and a quantity of katsuobushi flakes. This same stock is an important ingredient, along with sake, soy sauce and mirin, in simmering vegetables and other dried foods, as well as in the dipping sauces for various kinds of Japanese-style noodles.
"Cherry" Shrimp – Sakura-ebi
"Cherry shrimp" or sakura-ebi are a special local product harvested in the spring from Suruga Bay, in Shizuoka prefecture. These shrimp are a beautiful translucent pink, reminiscent of cherry blossoms (sakura), and are sometimes called the jewels of the sea. Sakura-ebi have been part of the fishing industry for about one hundred years. They are netted by pairs of boats which fish at night and return before daybreak.
Sakura-ebi may be eaten raw, or doused briefly in boiling water (kama-age). Suboshi sakura-ebi is dried directly in the sun, and niboshi sakura-ebi is boiled in a huge pot and then dried either in the sun or in a drying device. The flavor of the sun-dried shrimp intensifies the more it is chewed; and the shrimp that are boiled before drying have a light crunchy texture.
Since sakura-ebi are eaten shell and all, it is a plentiful source of calcium and enriches the flavor of foods like sakura-ebi no kakiage (tempura made with sliced onion), and is often eaten with hot udon or soba noodles. Sakura-ebi are a standard ingredient of okonomiyaki (vegetables and meat or seafood mixed with batter and fried on a griddle).
Dried Cod – Bodara
Another popular product is cod that has been sun-dried for one or two months to a rock-hard texture. Bodara is made mostly in the far north of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. Production of dried cod is restricted to the coldest December-through-March months of the winter when strong winds blow.
Bodara is soaked in clear water, or water from washing rice in order to soften it before cooking. Preparation can take some time, as each stick of dried cod is usually broken into two or three pieces, soaked in water overnight, and then slowly boiled for about an hour until it becomes soft.
Dried cod appears to have entered the Japanese diet in Kyoto during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). A typical dish is imobo, a New Year's dish served in Kyoto consisting of softened pieces of dried cod simmered in broth with sake, soy sauce, mirin and sugar with taro potatoes called ebi-imo ("shrimp potatoes," because they curve like shrimp).
The popularity of simmered dishes made with dried cod spread from Kyoto in subsequent centuries and became a familiar part of folk cooking throughout the country. In Yamagata Prefecture in the north, for example, cod is cooked with daikon and in Kumamoto Prefecture in the south, it is cooked with burdock root.
Kazuyoshi Shitomi was born in Tokyo in 1925. He graduated from Waseda Jitsugyo Academy in 1943 and began working at Mantou, his family-run, Asakusa-based wholesale store specializing in kanbutsu dried foods. In 1965 he succeeded as head of the family. For about six years he contributed a series of articles to a cooking magazine based on visits to places throughout the country where kanbutsu products are made and has written and edited numerous other articles on dried foods. He is the author of Kanbutsu Nyumon [Introduction to Dried Foods].
Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992. Since then he has held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Among his major publications are Tea in Japan and The History of Japanese Food.