Tasty Japan:Time to Eat!
Katsuo no Tataki
Bonito fish, prepared like a rare steak
The warm Kuroshio current flows up the Pacific Ocean past Kochi Prefecture, making fishing a major industry there. Kochi is known for its catches of a fish called katsuo (bonito), and its bonito consumption is reported to be the highest in Japan. One way to prepare bonito, developed there, is katsuo no tataki ("pounded bonito").
In Japanese cuisine, tataki generally means pounding raw fish with a knife to mince it, then mixing in a condiment like shiso (Japanese basil). But katsuo no tataki is not prepared like that at all. First, the fish is cleaned and filleted. Then the skin sides are broiled over a straw or charcoal flame until they are evenly scorched. Next, coarse salt or a soy sauce/citrus juice mixture is sprinkled on the fillets, which are then given light taps with the back of a kitchen knife or the hand, to work the seasoning into the flesh. This preparation method gets its name from the fact that the seasoning is tapped (tataki) lightly into the katsuo fish. Generally the fillets are enhanced with thin slices of garlic and the soy sauce/citrus fruit mixture, although recent innovations include grated ginger or mayonnaise instead.
There are a number of theories about how this preparation method began. One is that in the early 17th century Yamauchi Kazutoyo, the lord of the Tosa domain (present-day Kochi Prefecture), prohibited the eating of sashimi raw fish to prevent food poisoning, but the common folk would scorch just the exterior and pretend it was broiled right through. Another explanation is that the dish began in the early days of Japan's modernization (after 1868), to give Westerners a taste of something close to grilled steak.
A restaurant serving Tosa (Kochi) cuisine in Tokyo's Akasaka district uses bonito caught the traditional way, with a pole and line to protect the fish from injury. This lets the restaurant offer fresh, firm fillets.
Bonito arrive off the coast of Japan in spring and fall, creating the opportunity for seasonal dishes twice a year. In spring, they swim north with the warm current, bearing little fat and providing a lighter taste, while in the fall they ride the cold current south, fatter and ready to provide a heartier flavor. So each seasonal dish offers a different katsuo no tataki taste.
There are different cooking styles, as well. You could, for instance, broil the fish and then chill it in ice water, or broil only the skin and not tap in any seasoning. Narumiya Kenji, the head chef at the restaurant in Akasaka, says, "In Kochi it's common to eat it while the skin's still warm. Be sure to use coarse salt—that gives it a more intense flavor."
When prepared this way, the skin is crisp, savory and warm, while the flesh will be cool with a pliant texture, something like a rare steak.
Kochi's traditional tataki cuisine is now found in many bars, restaurants, and supermarkets. The refreshing taste of the soy sauce/citrus juice mixture combines with the zesty tang of garlic to bring out the flavor of both, and the texture is something like a steak grilled rare. This preparation suites the tastes of people today and is popular across the country.