We went to meet traditional Japanese artisans whose practice is on the verge of extinction. They all warmly opened their doors to us. It is with Yukiaki Tenpaku’s workshop that Poulpy’s journey begins … Thus, over the course of our meetings, we hope to open your curiosity to their thousand-year-old activities which rhyme with tradition and know-how. Tenpaku-san’s family produces old-fashioned smoked Katsuo-bushi (鰹 節) here. Hear, “charcoal fish”: a popular condiment in Japan, obtained from dried bonito, fermented, then smoked. Immersion.
Meow, meow tirelessly makes a very intrusive little cat at the entrance to the building. A smell of old burnt wood intoxicates us: we are in Yukiaki Tenpaku’s workshop where Katsuo-bushi is produced by hand as the Japanese did centuries ago. It is one of the last ten factories in Japan to use ancestral wood-fired smoking. We are in Mie prefecture, on the side of the cliff, in an old building of wood and green tiles. Here time has stood still.
From fish to Katsuo-bushi: the fruit of a long and patient metamorphosis.
The production of Katsuo-bushi cannot escape the fine nostrils of our four-legged friend: it follows our footsteps. And how can we blame him? The infinitely comforting and enveloping smoky smell occupies the smallest mazes of the workshop. A blessed consequence of long time during which the fish transform, investing slowly, but surely, the ambient air of their woody scent.
The Japanese condiment, essential, is shaped by the slow smoking of a fish also eaten in sashimi: bonito. Skipjack is a cousin of tuna, caught from spring to autumn, on the coastal seas of the Archipelago. Such a fish weighs around 2.5 kg and allows the manufacture of 600g to 800g of katsuo-bushi. After stripping and cooking in hot water, it is smoked in fillets 1h30 per day at 80/85 degrees and this, for a month ! After which, the fish becomes firm as a rock. Follows a slow fermentation for an additional 5 months during which a microscopic fungus forms a thin protective layer on the fish.
The block of Katsuo-bushi, which keeps better as well as in its pre-cut version, is consumed raped in shavings, as a garnish on many foods such as simple rice. But it is more commonly used in the preparation of Dashi, a broth made from dried konbu seaweed, soaked for several hours: after adding strips of Katsuo-bushi to boiling water, you have to wait until they hit the bottom to remove them. Then, it is possible to taste the beverage, or to use it as the base of another dish. Once again, time is counted in hours: it is the taste of respect for it that we also savor through these recipes.
Also, during the various preparations of Katsuo-bushi, do not be surprised if, under the effect of the heat, he starts to dance like magic. This is why it is sometimes nicknamed “dancing fish”. What strange forces therefore animate the smoked bonito, one must wonder 7th century warriors who were already consuming it to gain strength …
A culinary art from the abyss of time.
Katsuo-bushi can take on another writing: 勝男 武士, meaning ” Samurai“. However, his current reputation, far from the warrior universe, is rather to be an asset ” umami“. Umami (う ま み) is, among the universal flavors of sweet, salty, sour and bitter, a fifth sensation of the palace referring to the roundness, the balance and the appetizing dimension of the dish. Indeed, Katsuo-bushi does not retain the salty or iodized taste of the fish from which it comes, but becomes tasty, tasty, satisfying. This is what elevates him to rank Japanese favorite foods. Its “umami” flavor, this ingredient owes it to inosinic acid it contains, noted as such in 1913 by Japanese scientists. Note that if umami has been more widely discovered and baptized in Japan, and that it is less sought after by the French language, the fact remains a feeling shared across the world : mushrooms or truffles are for example umami.
Admittedly, its gluttony does not perfectly embody the boldness of the veterans, but the Katsuo-bushi still contains more 70% protein for around 3% fat : it is a major nutritional asset! Perhaps this was, in addition to the comfort of its complex and rich aromas, one of the reasons for its timeless consumption, including by soldiers? One thing is certain, we find some traces, in a simpler original form (a simmer followed by natural drying outdoors), in the famous and very old Chronicle of Ancient Facts said Kojiki and written in 712.
Thus, at the end of the era Samurai, the Katsuo-bushi occupied the role of ration distributed to soldiers. Its long conservation and its nutritional contributions are great assets in such a context. Then, around 1600, it is reported that the tradition of sun drying substituted a wood-fired smoking process. This step gives it the shape of arabushi, preceding fermentation.
Finally, during the time ofEdo (1600-1868), Katsuo-bushi was so popular that it could evade taxes or act as a religious offering. Over the centuries, it has retained this preciousness and, as a symbol of good omen, can be brought into wedding gift.
His success ? Katsuo-bushi owes it to its artisans, respectful of nature.
Today, automation using machines is so common that there are few still traditional artisans who shape Katsuo-bushi over time, this invisible ingredient essential to its quality. Some however defy the injunction to productivist innovation and continue to swim in their own current, at their own pace, strong in the know-how they inherit. Perhaps it is this mysterious force that our willful little cat, who now jumps on tables to drive the owners mad, has come to seek? Because everything here is linked. The wood used, Oubamegachi, comes from vast forests which inhabit the mountains of Mie Prefecture. For thousands of years, the Japanese in the region have cut down trees to smoke skipjack. A cause of deforestation? Not at all… it’s the opposite!
Trees carefully sampled while respecting environmental balances drain with them a lot of sediment in the waterways. These flow to the ocean to feed many species of seafood. A blessing for the region and a positive feedback circle for a prefecture historically known for its treasures from the sea, including the famous precious pearls.
As for fish, the striped-bellied skipjack is caught with a seine on free schools, an old technique on the surface, among the most responsible. What is more, a vessel only goes to sea five times a year on average, during a period of strict legal authorization. But while Japan has not increased its catches for several decades, the catches of striped skipjack are increasing significantly. In question ? More and more American, Chinese, Korean and Indian ships come here to collect its meat for the manufacture of canned tuna.
It is indeed certainly not the production on a human scale of small artisans that could call into question the country’s marine balance, cherished by these specialists who listen to the rhythm of nature for which they cultivate great gratitude. The long months of waiting required for their profession are witnesses to this. This recognition is all the stronger as the historical success of Katsuo-bushi contributes to the preservation of their profession. Thus, since 2013, “Washoku”, a set of traditional Japanese cuisine, has entered the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And included in this memory protection? The Katsuo-bushi of course.
End of the visit!
Here are our clothes imbued with that strong smell of smoke not so unpleasant. The little cat persists in its task. Meow, he told us as he rubbed our legs, once again drawing the curious’ attention to him. Here, nothing is lost. Maybe the noise got to his ears! Indeed, the cooking water of the bonito, a tasty broth, can be used in sauce. The best of production goes to the gods. At the end of the matsuri, food is shared among the faithful. Yukiaki-san insists: here the reigning spirit is at the opposite extreme of mass consumption and its perpetual rush forward. You have to give time to time to produce quality. In the past, the fruits of production were also reserved for the emperor. Today, everyone can taste the precious dishes and the greatest chefs use them in their preparations. But does the world still have the common sense to appreciate good things?
It’s time to say goodbye to our cat friend and the brave Japanese who tolerate him lovingly. Just like him you can visit this wonderful place frozen in time in Mie prefecture. The owners will be happy to take you on a guided tour. But avoid meowing, only yen are accepted …
Practical information :
The workshop: http://www.katuobushi.com
Location: Katsuo Ibushigoya. 362 Nakiri, Daiocho, Shima, Mie, 517-0603, Japan
Source : https://www.nishikidori.com/img/cms/katsuobushi.pdf