The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, wrote in “Ode to Salt”
“I know you won’t believe me,
but it sings,
salt sings… Dust of the sea,
in you the tongue receives a kiss from ocean night…
in it, … we taste infinitude”
‘Elizabeth the Beautiful’s’ face lit up. She said it smelled like one of her favorite smells a bonfire. “Yes, I agreed, a bonfire on a beach on the sea of Japan.” One of my new line chefs walked by, gazed at it and asked politely if he could hold it for a moment. He did and after a moment said it reminded him of petrified wood. It does. I had never seen katsuobushi in a relatively whole form before only in pale, blond pencil-shaving-like wisps in the bag it comes in at Asian markets. This was a much more impressive object to behold!
One of our former chefs sent it as a gift upon his return from Tokyo. Along with it arrived a wooden box designed to work much the same as a carpenter’s plane enabling one to harvest this exotic sea treasure. In the U.S. the product is known as bonito. Its Japanese name is katsuobushi, literally, “firewood fish." It is prepared when skipjack tuna is hung in the dry, salty air on the coastal cliffs of Japan. The price of the bonito is determined by how close it is to the center cut. and can rise to over $350 per pound!
Skipjack tuna is a streamlined, fast-swimming fish, common in tropical waters throughout the world, where it inhabits surface waters in large shoals of up to 50,000, feeding on fishes, crustaceans and mollusks of all sorts. It is eaten both seared and as sushi but when prepared for katsuobushi it becomes the main ingredient in dashi, the “mother” to miso soup and, in essence, the Japanese equivalent of a Jewish mother’s chicken soup. So you know it's good for you.
In 676 A.D., the Emperor of Japan outlawed the consumption of meat for the common people. It remained so for succeeding governors because Buddhism was the strengthening national religion. When our chef friend sent the package, he included a note. It said that this dried fish "was about 30 years old!" Decidedly not ‘fresh’ yet all the better! I shaved some of the hard substance into the handsome rectangular box, gathered the resulting “tuna dust” at the catch drawer below the blade and spooned it into a cup of hot water I had drawn from the tea kettle. The once inanimate motes suddenly and mystically danced to life, wriggling in the hot water as if they would love to swim away.
My mind turned inward and I thought of fishermen holding lanterns high and peering into the dark, ancient night over the Sea of Japan. I thought of them hunting their streaking prey in the cold, rocking seas of centuries gone by and thanked the heavens that refrigeration took a long time to be invented. If it had been any sooner, man might not have conceived of smoking, salting, curing, fermenting, pickling and drying foods to make it through the long seasons with no ‘eternal’ harvest and we’d be poorer off for it. There would be no dashi or miso soup for us.
Now I’m going out to look for that bonfire.