I think it’s alive!

That’s what I thought the first time I saw the katsuobushi dancing!

The first time I ever saw and ate katsuobushi was the first time that I had okonomiyaki. This is a Japanese food that has recently appeared in America and is gaining some popularity. I guess you call it a savory pancake. Back in the day, some called it a Japanese pizza. It comes in all sorts of unGodly combinations now, but in the 1970s there were really only four kinds: pork, beef, shrimp, and squid or octopus. You’d sit at a table with a griddle in the middle and your waiter would bring you a bowl of ingredients with a tamago cracked over it. You had to mix it well before pouring it on to the griddle. Then you had to patiently wait until the right time to flip it. That was the hard part and required some bīru… because you’d be getting hot from the griddle no matter what the season.

When I went back to Kyoto in 2016, much had changed but this shop where I first ate okonomiyaki in 1976 was still there! Kind of amazing, really!

After you flipped it, you’d paint it with sauce, flecks of green seaweed and then the katsubushi which would immediately begin to dance. So, you know it is fish and surely it isn’t alive, but why the heck is it DANCING! It’s odd. The seaweed and sauce are content to just “be” but the katsuobushi dances for a while before settling down. It’s a little bukimi if you aren’t used to it.

It’s something to do with the heat. The daintily shaved flakes of bonito just can’t help themselves. Sprinkle them over any hot food and they will be dancing away, much to the amusement of children.

Since they keep well in the pantry, they are an essential and staple food in any Japanese household. Most people buy them in packs, but people used to shave them themselves, or get them freshly shaved from a vendor. If you ever can get them freshly shaved it is a real treat!

  • katsuobushi – 鰹節 bonito flakes. Used in so many dishes and also to make dashi.
  • okonomiyaki – お好み焼き a savory pancake that you cook on a grill. Osaka and Hiroshima are both famous for their versions.
  • tamago – たまご egg
  • bīru – ビール beer. If you don’t draw out that i sound you’ll be saying building instead of beer!
  • bukimi – 不気味 eerie, weird

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