One of the most important ingredients used in Japanese cooking is Bonita flakes or katsuobushi.
This fish, usually mackerel pike, is dried to make a brownish-black granular substance with a strong, smoky flavor and aroma.
Treatment of fish for bonito flakes includes smoking, steaming then sun drying.
This results in fish stock being boiled for more than 10 hours to make dashi, a broth used as the base for soups.
Bonito flakes are sold separately from dashi, and they can also be added on top of rice or noodles to give that smoky flavor and aroma.
The different characteristic taste of bonito flakes is mainly due to its rich in umami flavors glutamate salts.
This salt can produce a strong savory flavor, much stronger than beef or mushroom stock.
However, bonito flakes are very expensive and sometimes hard to acquire outside Japan unless bought online.
If you can’t find it easily, read on to discover five substitutes for bonito flakes that you can use in your Japanese or other Asian cuisines.
What are Bonita Flakes (Katsuobushi)?
Firstly, Katsuobushi, or bonito flakes, are fish that have been dried then smoked.
Their scientific name is ‘Kato’, which means fish with scales but no bones – quite fitting given the flakes’ appearance.
The flakes are made up of the white parts of tuna.
Bonito flakes are made in Japan, where they have been used for over 1,000 years.
They are especially popular in the summertime during the Obon festival season when people will gather to remember their ancestors that have passed on.
The fish is typically caught between May and October.
Katsuobushi is most commonly used in Japanese cooking.
It adds a rich, savory umami flavor to dashi, forming part of many soups and sauces.
The flakes are also used in salad dressings, noodle dishes, and sauces.
Katsuobushi can be stored for long periods, but it is important that it is kept away from moisture or direct sunlight.
The flavor can diminish with prolonged exposure to oxygen.
It should not be kept in a freezer or refrigerator to avoid mold.
It can be kept for six months if stored correctly, but it is recommended that you use them within three months of opening the packet.
In many Japanese households, katsuobushi will be stored inside the fridge alongside other Japanese staples such as soy sauce and mirin.
The 5 Best Substitutes for Bonita Flakes (Katsuobushi)
You will likely want to use Katsuobushi flakes when cooking Japanese food at home because of their pungent umami flavor.
However, they can be difficult to find.
Here are five substitutes for katsuobushi that can help you recreate the same flavors without actually having to go out and buy them:
1 – Dulse Flakes and Nori Seaweed
Dulse flakes are not easily accessible in many supermarkets.
However, they are readily available online.
Regarding the nutritional content of the seaweed, it is rich in iron and iodine.
It can be used as a substitute for Katsuobushi for soups, salads, side dishes, or noodle dishes.
Norit is another seaweed product, but it is significantly different in taste and texture.
Norit seaweed consists of thin layers usually used to wrap sushi or rice balls.
However, it can also be crumbled into powder form.
This means that it works well with salads, soups, noodles, and sauces.
When dulse flakes are combined with nori seaweed, it yields a perfect combination of flavor and texture.
2 – Kombu or Konbu
If you’re a fan of Japanese cooking, you will know that kombu is also quite popular.
It contributes a lot to the flavor and texture of dishes such as soups and broths.
Kombu is a seaweed product.
It has several nutritional benefits, including being rich in iodine and calcium, but it largely depends on the water in which it is grown.
Kombu is rather chewy, making it an ideal substitute for bonito flakes.
However, if you do not like its texture, you can soak it overnight to reduce the size of the seaweed shreds.
3 – Iriko or Baby Anchovies
Reiko is a Japanese cured anchovy.
It is salted and fermented, but it does not boast the same pungent aroma as katsuobushi.
This product is also readily available online and can be used in place of bonito flakes for soups and noodle dishes.
Furthermore, it has an important role in broth, so it is a great substitute for Katsuobushi flakes.
Additionally, ikura or salmon roe has a similar texture and consistency to bonito flakes.
Salmon roe can be used in soups and noodle dishes, but it must be slightly cooked before adding other ingredients.
4 – Mackerel Powder
For an intense and rich flavor that evokes a similar taste to katsuobushi, mackerel powder might be the way to go.
The mackerel is typically dried in the sun before being salted and cured.
It is then fermented in brine for up to one year, contributing to its pungent smell.
This product can be found online or at your local Asian grocery store.
Mackerel powder gives soups and sauces an intense umami flavor that tastes similar to katsuobushi flakes.
This product is versatile because it can be added to any dish you want.
5 – Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms are dark brown. They have a hard texture, but they can be easily broken down into small pieces.
These mushrooms are typically dried to allow them to last longer.
You can find these mushrooms at Asian grocery stores or online shops.
Dried shiitake mushrooms are great for imparting the umami flavor in soups and noodles.
You can also add them to seafood dishes or fried rice.
Bonita flakes are widely used in Japanese cooking, but they are not easily accessible to many people.
Fortunately, you can use any of the above products as substitutes for Bonita flakes, depending on your taste preferences and specific dish.
If you’re a fan of Japanese cooking, you should give any of these substitutes a try.
Some products have additional health benefits, so it’s well worth your while.