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When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author, known internationally as “the founding father of New World Cuisine,”  was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence. Van Aken is also the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage” and a semi-finalist for “Best Chef in America.”

Now the Chef/Owner of NORMAN’S at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Chef/Director of Tuyo at The Miami Culinary Institute. Van Aken’s newest cookbook, My Key West Kitchen, is now available on pre-order. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.

“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”

       —Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Salt”


Elizabeth the Beautiful’s face lit up. She said it smelled like one of her favorite smells — a bonfire. “Yes, a bonfire on a beach on the sea of Japan,” I agreed. One of the new line chefs walked by, gazed at it, asked politely if he could hold it for a moment. He did and said it reminded him of petrified wood. It does. I had never seen it in a relatively whole form before…only in pale blond pencil shaving-like shaving wisps in the bag it comes in at Asian markets.

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 $100 per pound.

Skipjack 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. Katsuobushi (or bonito, if you like) is 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 that 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 though the long seasons with no steady harvest, and we’d be poorer of for it. There would be no dashi or miso soup for us.

Now I’m going out to look for that bonfire. 

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