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Dried bonito flakes used for making dashi.

Katsuobushi is a little ingredient that makes a big difference. We wouldn’t blame you for underestimating it on first sight, but those who know it know how much it brings to the table. For those dishes that are garnished with katsuobushi, leaving it out will just feel… not quite complete. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Katsuobushi is simple: smoked and dried flakes of skipjack tuna (or bonito). If you’re a fan of Japanese food, you’ve probably encountered katsuobushi lots of times. It has a few uses that are particularly common, the first being to make dashi stock which in turn is the base for many soups, as well as being the liquid component for some savory batters and doughs. Other than as an ingredient for dashi, katsuobushi is popular as a topping for a bunch of foods, including on okonomiyaki and agedashi tofu.

The reason katsuobushi is so ubiquitous in Japanese cooking is because it’s a key ingredient in making dashi, which itself is a key part of so many foods in Japan. This umami broth is not just for soups, but a flavoring agent in seemingly everything. If a recipe needs a liquid, it’s a good bet you’ll be using dashi! Shaved katsuobushi (hana katsuo) or bonito flakes are also often used as a topping, such as on top of okonomiyaki — whose batter is already made out of dashi — or other grilled or pan-fried foods to add a slight smoky savory flavor.

A fun quality of katsuobushi is that, since the flakes are so light, any amount of steam and heat will make them quiver and dance. This adds a cute little component to any fresh-off-the-cooktop dish, where it feels almost alive and excited for you to eat it!

If you want to make dashi or need toppings for other dishes, you can find katsuobushi packets in Uwajimaya’s grocery department.