Say hello to bonito flakes. They’re waving at you, perched on an Osaka Pancake at the newest Tom Douglas restaurant, TanakaSan. The heat from the savory pancake—a variation on traditional okonomiyaki made with cabbage, scallion and shrimp—causes the delicate fish shavings to sway. So, it’s kind of like dinner and a show.
Bonito flakes are thin shavings of smoked skipjack tuna, made from fillets that are first poached and dried. They then go through a series of smokings, to preserve them. Better grades of the prepared fillets are sold whole and grated to order, adding a delicate fish flavor with a hint of smoke.
Where he gets it: While working on creating TanakaSan’s menu—a mash-up of traditional Asian cooking techniques with a generous pinch of American ingredients—the kitchen crew made their own salmon bonito. “It was a time-consuming process,” says Eric Tanaka, Douglas’ longtime business partner for whom the restaurant is named. A native of Southern California, he dipped into his well of childhood memories to craft the menu. “[The salmon bonito] had a wonderfully nutty flavor, and we topped our house-made tofu with it, but it just wasn’t feasible for daily production.” So, they now source Ninben brand bonito flakes from a local distributor, Seasia.
What he does with it: Besides being a playful garnish for the noodle pancake, bonito is also essential in dashi, the fish and kombu (dried kelp) broth that’s the base for TanakaSan’s adventurous twist on matzo ball soup. At home, Tanaka likes it on eggs and as a finishing touch for rice bowls.
Where you can find it: Bonito flakes are available at many supermarkets, including Whole Foods (wholefoodsmarket.com), and at Asian markets, although Tanaka prefers the extensive selection at Uwajimaya (Chinatown–International District, 600 Fifth Ave. S; 206.624.6248; uwajimaya.com. Also in Renton and Bellevue). A 1-ounce package is about $6 (which might sound like a lot, but a little goes a long way).
Get chef Eric Tanaka's dashi matzo ball soup recipe here.