Bonito Flakes: A Versatile Umami Source

Bonito flakes are also known as katsuobushi. They are dried, smoked, and fermented flakes of skipjack tuna that Japanese people use to make the broth known as dashi. Bonito flakes have been used in Japanese cooking for centuries. There is evidence of the Japanese eating dried fish back in the 8th century.

Centuries ago, dried fish — including bonito — was an important part of the Japanese diet. The dried fish was used to make dashi, a stock that would be the main Japanese condiment until the introduction of soybean products like miso and soy sauce.

The dashi made with bonito flakes came into fashion in the 1600s. A new preservation technique that involved dry smoking fish had recently been discovered. Once the Japanese realized that this method worked especially well with bonito, smoked bonito flakes became popular in the southern part of Japan and spread throughout the country.

Bonito Flakes

At some point during the Edo period (1603 to 1868), it was discovered that mold made bonito flakes taste even better. Historians say that mold developed on bonito being transported long distances to Edo, which was then the capital city. It was discovered that the mold made the bonito even more flavorful. Spraying beneficial mold onto bonito is an important part of the production method for some varieties of bonito flakes.

Dashi made with bonito flakes continues to play an important role in Japanese cuisine today.

Bonito flakes flavor profile

Bonito flakes are used to provide umami in savory dishes. The flakes are rich in inosinic acid, which multiplies the umami flavor from compounds like the glutamic acid/glutamate found in kombu. The main character of bonito flavor is umami accompanied by mild fishiness.

It is important to note that the concept of umami originated in Japan and that dashi is what gave rise to monosodium glutamate. The umami note that you get from bonito flakes is used to make savory foods taste even more savory and meaty, thus enhancing their flavor.

Aside from the umami property, bonito flakes can differ in flavor subtly depending on the preferences of the individual making it. The flavor also varies according to the type of bonito flakes. The cheapest type is the smoked and dried type called arabushi; the more expensive variety of bonito flakes is called karebushi and it is fermented for a short period.

Health benefits of bonito flakes

Along with being a flavorful addition to Japanese-style dishes, bonito flakes are known to be highly nutritious. They contain important nutrients like:

  • Protein: Bonito flakes are a great source of healthy proteins that include all of the essential amino acids.
  • Minerals: Bonito flakes are rich in minerals like potassium, calcium, and iron.
  • Vitamins: You can get B vitamins including B-3 and B-12 from bonito flakes.

With bonito flakes in your diet, you can treat or prevent health problems like:

  • High blood pressure: Bonito flakes have been shown to lower blood pressure, which can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Mental fatigue: Studies show that bonito can lessen mental fatigue and improve cognitive performance.

Common uses

Aside from being used to make dashi, bonito flakes are popular toppings other dishes like udon noodles, cold tofu, and rice balls. Bonito flakes are also among the most important ingredients in furikake seasoning.