Katsuo (Bonito) is a seasonal Japanese delicacy of early summer. The most popular way to eat it is as katsuo no tataki (“pounded bonito sashimi”), a traditional dish from Kochi Prefecture on Shikoku Island.
This is a unique type of sashimi, the only kind to be eaten with garlic or seared before eating. In the past the bonito was pounded to soften the flesh, but nowadays condiments are rubbed into it and it is left to marinate so that it softens and absorbs their flavor. It is a perfect dish to make when the weather is hot and sultry, and when you don’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen.
The origins of the dish are lost in the mists of time. One Edo-era (1603-1867) story holds that a European merchant tried to make smoked katsuo no tataki. According to another story, also of the Edo era, a European priest, homesick for beefsteak and garlic, used bonito as the closest red meat substitute.
Whatever the origins of the recipe, during the Edo era katsuo was so cherished that the Edokko – the people of Edo – used to say that in order to be able to afford hatsu-gatsuo, the first bonito of the season, they would willingly pawn their wives. Bonito first became popular with the samurai, since the word “katsuo” can also mean “winning man,” but it later spread to the common people.
There are many ways to enjoy bonito in Japan, but perhaps the most traditional, besides katsuo no tataki, is as dried shavings. Known as katsuobushi, these are a basic ingredient in Japanese fish stock, dashi.
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Katsuo no Tataki: Seared Bonito Sashimi with Garlic
- 1 lb fresh bonito fillets with skin intact*, may replace with yellowtail or tuna
- Large bowl of ice water
- Homemade or bottled Ponzu dipping sauce, a vinegary mixture of soy sauce and sudachi, a type of citron
- 5 tbsps or more minced or chopped garlic
- 5 tbsps or more minced scallion
- 3 tbsps or more grated fresh ginger
- 1/2 cup fresh shiso (perilla) leaves, cut into slivers
- Whole shiso leaves
- Kaiware (radish sprouts)
- Edible flowers
Combine the condiments in a small bowl and set aside.
If using unseared bonito: Cut away any very dark parts of the bonito. Wash and pat dry. Spread out the fish and insert skewers--long metal ones are easiest to remove--parallel or fanning out to support the whole fillet. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Omit this step if you have bought seared bonito.
Quickly sear both sides of the fillets evenly over a very high heat. The outside of the bonito should turn white; the inside should look like rare steak. Omit this step if you have bought seared bonito.
Remove from the heat and plunge immediately into ice water. Gently remove the skewers by twisting them. Pat dry. Place the fillets on a cutting board, skin side up, and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices.
Decorate a serving platter with the bonito slices, overlapping them in rows. Add a thick layer of the condiment mixture, patting down firmly, and drizzle liberally with ponzu sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours.
Just before serving, remove from the refrigerator and take off the plastic wrap. Garnish if desired. Serve additional ponzu sauce in individual bowls, adding extra condiments if you like.
*I was able to buy already seared bonito at my local Japanese market here in the Bay area. It made for a faster preparation for this dish.
**If desired, make additional condiment mixture to mix into ponzu sauce at the table while dining.
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