Alongside soy sauce and miso, one of the primary seasonings is katsuobushi––the secret behind the dashi stock that provides the mouthwatering body of Japanese soups and hotpots, and an ingredient that has few parallels in other cuisines around the world.
So what is katsuobushi, exactly? Many diners from overseas first become aware of the substance when served okonomiyaki savory pancakes or yakisoba fried noodles topped with a handful of paper-thin kezuribushi, ruddy-tinged shavings that seem to writhe and dance in the heat rising from the dish they adorn.
This rather surprising spectacle can lead the uninitiated to surmise that they have been served a still-living organism. Yet if one should happen to notice the chefs preparing this garnish, you will see that the hard, dark substance they are grating, using a plane-like tool with a box attached, actually resembles a piece of wood.