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Katsuobushi: The Famous Bonito Flakes from Japanese Cuisine


Oct 06, 2021 · 4 mins read

The tiny, dried fish flakes called Bonito are a staple in Japanese cuisine and can be found throughout the country. These flakes add savory flavor to everything from rice dishes to soups and sauces. But katsuobushi or bonito flakes are used for more than just taste: they also help with digestion since they contain digestive enzymes that break down proteins. They also come in many different types and colors depending on where it's harvested - red, black, or white. To know more about this savory ingredient, Roverista takes you to a more in-depth look at this Japanese staple.

The History of Katsuobushi

Dried Bonito and Flakes on the wood tray @ Norwalk | Adobe Stock

Katsuobushi or Bonito flakes are dried, fermented fish that originated in Japan. Often used as a topping, these flakes are now commonly found on Japanese pizzas, sushis, dishes, and snacks because of their strong umami flavor. The story of bonito flakes begins centuries ago when the Japanese people were struggling to find food sources. They started eating fish for sustenance but quickly realized they couldn't eat it raw without risking infection from bacteria or parasites, which would cause diarrhea or worse. So they started "drying" the fish by laying it out in the sun to dry until it was crispy before cooking. This process is what made Bonito Flakes!

What is Katsuobushi or Bonito Flakes?

Katsuobushi, Japanese dried fermented skipjack tuna @ mnimage | Adobe Stock

The word Katsuobushi literally means bonito flakes. The process starts with cutting fresh skipjack tuna into large blocks, then smoking them over fragrant wood chips for hours at a time for a month before proceeding with sun drying. A bacterial mold culture is then applied to protect, ferment, and absorb any remaining moisture. Once the drying process is complete, the fish will resemble a hard piece of wood. Then, producers press and shave them into thin slices in a block with a sharp plane set.

What do bonito flakes taste like?

If you are not sure what bonito flakes taste like, they are fish flakes that have a salty taste with a trace of sweetness. The best way to describe it is umami; its savory flavor will make your mouth water for more! They have a mild flavor yet delicate taste making them perfect for sprinkling on dishes to add another layer of flavor without overwhelming the dish. The best way to know what katsuobushi tastes like? Taste them!

Bonito Flakes in Japanese Cuisine

Aside from making dashi, the Japanese also use bonito flakes in several dishes such as:

A) Bonito Flakes as Toppings


Also known as “octopus balls,” these are ball-shaped cakes with chopped octopus

たこ焼き @ photosomething | Adobe Stock


A savory egg and cabbage Japanese pancake

お好み焼き @ sasazawa | Adobe Stock

Hiyayakko (Chilled Tofu)

A fresh Japanese cold tofu dish

Closeup of hiyayakko (Japanese cold tofu salad) @ Patrick | Adobe Stock

B) Bonito Flakes as Filling


A popular filling for onigiri (Japanese rice balls) simple mixture of shaved dried bonito flakes and shoyu (soy sauce)

Japanese cuisine, Onigiri - rice ball @ lcc54613 | Adobe Stock

C) Bonito Flakes as Seasoning/Sauce

Tosani (Simmered Bamboo Shoots)

A soy sauce-based dish mixed with bonito flakes

Pike boiled Bamboo Shoots @ MASAFUMI | Adobe Stock

Ponzu Sauce

A sauce with kombu, bonito flakes, lemon, mirin, and soy sauce

Top view of Shoyu Ponzu (Citrus soy sauce) with minced daikon and scallion. @ artitwpd | Adobe Stock


A mix of dried seasonings usually sprinkled on top of rice

Traditional Japanese bowl with white rice and furikake @ Picture Partners | Adobe Stock

Types of Bonito Flakes

Katsuobushi is available in different types, ranging in different grades, used differently from each other. They are:


Katsuobushi, that’s been shaved into thin and pale pink flakes, is usually used for toppings and garnish.

Kezuri Katsuo

Katsuobushi, that’s shaved but thicker than hanakatsuo, with a higher concentration of shavings from dark meat. It’s ideal as a braising liquid or infusing a sauce for its rich umami flavor

Karebushi (Dried Fillet)

Katsuobushi, that’s been dried and fermented twice. This is ideal as a dashi base because of its depth in flavor.

Honkarebushi (True Dried Fillet)

Known as “true dried fillet,” it’s katsuobushi that’s been dried and fermented thrice. This results in a much rich and deeper flavor than karebushi.

Health Benefits of Bonito Flakes

Bonito flakes are a delicious, high-protein ingredient packed in protein with a whopping 25% protein content for unprocessed skipjack tuna. Once the fish is processed to make katsuobushi, the protein content increases to 77%. Katsuobushi also contains high amounts of essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that are good for the health.

According to studies, regularly consuming katsuobushi improves metabolism and brain function. It also helps in diminishing the risk of some diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.

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