Dancing Fish Flakes


When I eat at a restaurant, I’m secretly hoping to get the plate that everyone else will ooh and ahh over. I’ve come up with a surefire way to achieve this, at least at Japanese restaurants: The trick is to order a dish topped with dancing fish flakes. Also known as hanakatsuo, they’re the thinnest form of shaved dried bonito (katsuobushi), the skipjack tuna ubiquitous in Japanese cooking. When steam rises from hot food, the paper-thin fish flakes twirl and dance like they’re alive. Recently, at my local Japanese noodle shop, I ordered stir-fried udon noodles topped with hanakatsuo, and someone at my table actually said, “Oh my God, what is that?”

So, as a showstopper, dancing fish flakes are hard to beat. But they’re easy to buy and use at home. When you get to the aisle of the Asian grocery that has bonito flakes, you’ll find two different types of flakes, one slightly thicker than the other. The thick shavings are for making dashi, the ubiquitous Japanese bonito-kelp broth. The thin shavings are for topping food. To identify the thin shavings, look for the word “soft” on the package (mine is labeled “katsuo soft kezuri, natural flavor”). Then squeeze the package. If it feels pillowy, like the flakes inside are loosely packed, you are holding a sack of little dancers.

Shizuo Tsuji, in his masterpiece Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, says the dancing flakes look like “rosy-beige excelsior.” Frankly, I had to look up “excelsior,” but now that I know it’s a wood-derived stuffing material that used to be dyed green and used as Easter “grass,” I find his description perfectly apt. To give you an idea of how airy these flakes are, I bought a large package—enough for at least a dozen servings of dancing fish flakes—and it weighed 1.4 ounces.

Then, put them on noodles (udon or yakisoba), okonomiyaki, baked or sautéed tofu, steamed or fried rice. They’re not merely a treat for the eyes; with a hint of smoke from the curing process and a big helping of umami from the fish itself, fish flakes make the taste buds dance, too.

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