Kat­suobushi on Ja­pan’s Ise-shima Penin­sula

SAVEUR - - Changing Tides - BY LAURA KINIRY

Yuki­aki Ten­paku reaches for a piece of raw ubame oak in his clifftop smoke hut, stok­ing a fire like the ones his an­ces­tors used 300 years ago. Ten­paku is the owner of Maruten Ltd., a small com­pany in Ja­pan’s Shima City that makes kat­suobushi the old way: by gently smok­ing, dry­ing, and fer­ment­ing bonito fish for shav­ing into pink­ish-brown flakes. It’s a main in­gre­di­ent in dashi, Ja­pan’s sta­ple stock, and is widely used as a top­ping on dishes such as okonomiyak­i, where the sup­ple flakes twist and curl in the ris­ing heat.

From the be­gin­ning, the Ten­paku fam­ily has prac­ticed tebiyama—a time-hon­ored way of smok­ing that at­taches fire­wood fla­vor while al­low­ing for pre­cise con­trol over the flame. But very few mak­ers still use this la­bor-in­ten­sive method, and Ten­paku be­lieves it’s in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing. “It isn’t at­trac­tive to the younger gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “The bonito are de­creas­ing, and Ja­pan’s food is di­ver­si­fy­ing.” Still, the de­sire to pre­serve this way of life keeps him go­ing. He used to ob­tain his bonito—a smaller rel­a­tive of skip­jack tuna—from lo­cal wa­ters, but af­ter the Fukushima nu­clear ac­ci­dent in 2011, he has turned to the wa­ters of In­done­sia and Papua New Guinea. The month­s­long process begins for Ten­paka at port, where the fish are gut­ted and boiled be­fore trans­port to his hut.

Here, he stacks hun­dreds of fil­lets in wooden bas­kets, each morn­ing light­ing a low fire in a pit sev­eral feet below, which he ex­tin­guishes af­ter a few hours to let the fil­lets dry. This is re­peated ev­ery day for a month. Ten­paku then trims and shapes each fish and stores them in a high-hu­mid­ity mold room, where they will fer­ment for two weeks be­fore a brief break to dry in the sun. The mold is scraped off and Ten­paku begins again. Af­ter months of del­i­cate main­te­nance, the fully dried fil­lets look and feel more like wooden sheaths than fish. But inside, they’re a bril­liant translu­cent red, with a tongue-coat­ing fla­vor the Ja­panese call kokumi. It’s a long and lengthy process, but one Ten­paku cher­ishes ev­ery step of the way.

Once they are fully fer­mented and dried, bonito fil­lets look and feel more like wooden sheaths than fish, with a bril­liant red in­te­rior.

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