How can people go bonkers for an ingredient that looks like tiny living things dancing on their food? (*)
Not only will you be hooked on it, but so will your cat.
We’re not making this up. Once you’ve tried bonito flakes, you’ll want to use them on practically everything.
The love is real for this Asian cooking staple. There’s no authentic Japanese food without Bonito Flakes.
These treats are usually found near the soy sauce area of Asian grocery stores.
Sadly, we’re not in Japan and often lack this hyped treasure. So how can we get by in the kitchen without it?
Necessity is the mother of invention, so there are plenty of bonito flake alternatives.
We’ll walk you through the best bonito flakes substitutes, but first, see what all the fuss is about.
What are Bonito Flakes?
To ease the newcomers; they are not small, living things in your food. Simply, dried, fermented, smoked, and shaved skipjack tuna.
It might sound baffling how this intense addition can befriend so many dishes. Easily, since it tastes just the right amount of umami.
You don’t even realize something’s missing from your food until you start adding some Bonito Flakes to it. (*)
After that, there’s no going back.
But why do dried bonito flakes move on your plate?
The sight might trigger some primal disgust in you first. However, it’s due to the heat from your food having an impact on the thin little fish scraps.
They are not alive, for at least a few months now.
And what do dried bonito flakes taste like?
In Japanese cuisine, bonito flakes have a characteristic smokey umami flavor, and taste that is difficult to replicate.
The darker the color, the heavier the taste. They have a strong meaty flavor that reminds us of bacon.
The umami tone it brings to food is different than anything else, coming from its inosinate content. It’s like a smokey, slightly fishy nutritional yeast.
But what about using it?
How to cook with bonito flakes?
There are two main types of bonito flakes with slightly different places in cooking.
#1. Thinly sliced
These paper-thin slices of once big tuna are used for garnishing. They have a less overpowering taste, perfect to toss them casually on food, just like parmesan.
#2. Thicker shaved
Thick-shaved bonito flakes are umami flavor bombs. Generally used to deepen the taste profile.
It makes a whole meal from plain rice. Also great to make sauces, soups, stocks, and any other Japanese food lacking proper amounts of umami.
It is typically used in soups such as miso, but it can also be used as a garnish on top of foods like ramen noodles or rice bowls.
All around, they add a touch of dazzle to every meal, not just in Asian cuisine.
Why are Bonito Flakes so popular?
We have a theory on the fondness for it. Bonito flakes play an integral part in the foundation of Japanese cuisine; the dashi stock.
It’s amazing how these thin, paperlike slices became the backbone of cooking for many Japanese dishes.
It’s hard to understand why, as there are tons of other dried fish. Why is this particular one so special?
The process of making dried bonito flakes is exhaustive. Taking months of fermenting, sun-drying, hardening, smoking, and finally, shaving.
How can we replace such a unique taste? We have some ideas.
Let’s see what we’ve come up with to substitute bonito flakes.
The Best Substitutes for Bonito Flakes
We have to find a bonito flake replacement for seasoning, garnishing, and topping. It’s a challenge bringing such a perfect umami taste to recipes.
A high inosinic umami content, deep smokiness, and meaty underbelly are a good start.
These 9 bonito flakes substitutes will give you a similar burst of flavor. The first one is neither Japanese nor Asian by tradition.
#1. Nutritional Yeast
Seemingly out-of-place nutritional yeast brings a robust umami flavor.
You can bridge the absence of bonito flakes by blending them into savory foods; noodles, stocks, tofu, and rice.
It’s not simply a topping, but a bold seasoning as well. A favorite of vegetarians and vegans for adding cheesiness and meaty undertones without compromising their principles.
When substituting bonito flakes with nutritional yeast, add 50% more to create the same flavor essence.
The next bonito flake replacement is a divisive one.
#2. Mackerel Powder
Mackerels are often used as a bonito flake substitute. But their overwhelming fishy aroma doesn’t convince everyone.
As fans of all fish, we love it. However, if you want to avoid the fishiness of bonito flakes, skip to the next one.
Ground mackerel powder has the same culinary uses and is interchangeable with bonito flakes in every savory Japanese meal.
However, we recommend not adding it to salads, or any mild piquancy food. Mackerel powder overpowers soft flavors in an instant.
The Niboshi type of dried mackerels is our favorite choice to use in dashi instead of bonito flakes.
The third substitute on our list is a vegan friendly option.
#3. Roasted Soybeans
For those who prefer vegetarian substitutes, but have an aversion to mushrooms, soybeans are the middle road.
Some roasted soybeans with a hint of liquid smoke can be a fair alternative to bonito flakes.
The process of roasting needs time and care. You can’t rush it!
Contrary to mackerel powder, roasted soybeans can be safely paired with bland ingredients. Enhancing the meal with umami, but never drowning it.
The next on our list is another vegan bonito flakes replacement.
#4. Dried Shiitake Powder- A vegan alternative to Bonito flakes
Earthy and recognizable shiitake mushrooms are vegans’ favorite alternative to bonito flakes.
That is, for a very good reason. Generally available, and conveniently powdered, they can be accommodated into any dish of our choice.
The staple stock dashi is our favorite food to substitute bonito flakes for dried shiitake powder.
Nevertheless, it’s also suitable for stews, broth, rice dishes, and veggies meals. We recommend halving the portion of shiitake powder, as it’s kind of heartier than bonito flakes.
To smooth out that distinct aroma, add half shiitake powder, and half kombu. That will resemble the original bonito flakes much better.
Some Japanese restaurants make vegan dashi with dried shiitake powder and smoked celeriac.
With a fish allergy, shiitake powder is also a good choice for bonito flakes replacement.
Our following suggestion is a bit fishier, but still a vegan option.
#5. Dulse Seaweed – A vegetarian substitute for Bonito flakes
Dulse is a familiar ingredient for Japanese food lovers. This seaweed (technically lettuce) is a cooking staple for many recipes around Asian households.
Matching bonito flakes like gloves, Dulse is our favorite replacement. From the fishy flavor to flakey texture, smokey essence, and grindable consistency to our teeth.
We garnish, and season with it. It’s unmatched for us, and no fish had to die for it!
The only downside? It can get slimy when wet.
Double the dulse flakes when substituting bonito flakes, and be generous with the salt. Add some flaxseed oil for the missing fat from the fish.
#6. Shellfish stock
Shellfish powder is a flavorful ingredient. Made from ground-up shells from mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops.
Similarly, a broth made from shellfish is a fitting substitute for bonito flakes. For soups, stews, condiments, and sauces, we think a shellfish stock is better.
For the topping, garnishing, and pasta sauces, go with the powdered alternative.
While serving as an extra protein source in your meals, its savory richness is also unmatched.
Without any fuss, use it to replace bonito flakes in a 1:1 ratio. Shellfish likes to be simmered in every form for a full flavor release.
We continue with a similar fishy alternative.
#7. Iriko Anchovies
Dried anchovies bear several names in Japanese grocery stores; Iriko and Niboshi are just two of them.
These small fish pack a lot of flavor, aroma, and depth. Besides Asian cuisine, they are also recurring in Italian gastronomy.
An already popular dashi ingredient, it won’t be a surprising substitute for bonito flakes. Intense umami, bold fishiness, saltiness, and a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel are its main characteristics.
You can take noodles, soups, and miso dishes to the next level with some dried anchovies.
Besides a matching flavor profile, they add the same insomniac umami acid to every meal.
Conveniently available everywhere, not just in Asian specialty shops, they can be your comfort substitute for bonito flakes, all around the world
After a fishy detour, we return to vegetarian bonito flakes substitutes.
As kelp, Kombu is super popular in Japanese and East Asian culinary culture. This vegan ingredient comes in several shapes: pickled, dried, and shredded.
It serves as a complete replacement for bonito flakes in dashi, the Japanese stock soup.
However, it has a somewhat different umami flavor, but you still get the salty sea feel, with a touch of mushroom undertone.
While bonito flakes have an inosinate umami palate, Kombu has glutamate. That is a slight difference to take for a healthy, inviting, vegan alternative.
To give a fair picture, Kombu can be dangerous when consumed in high doses. Containing elevated amounts of iodine, it can make you sick.
Its texture is chewy and sold in large chunks. We prefer a light-brown color to it, but no fishy smell.
Aside from dashi, it blends in beautifully into marinades or sauces as a substitute for bonito flakes.
The last bonito flakes substitute on our list is a desperate remedy, in case every other fails.
#9. Shredded Nori
In the Western world, nori is solely known for being in sushi. That’s a sad one-dimensional view, of an otherwise multifaceted ingredient.
Shredded nori is far from an ideal replacement for bonito flakes. We still chose it for last, as you can buy it in all grocery stores around the world.
As a newcomer to Japanese cooking, it’s an acceptable ingredient to dip your toes in these cooking methods. It’s even better to use a combination of shredded nori and dulse flakes.
For a pro-flavor, and matching tonality to bonito flakes, it’s subpar.
With an ocean taste and a neutral tone, it can serve as a good base for several dishes. With additions, you can even make it great.
Use extra ingredients like liquid smoke and beef broth, or maybe some MSG for flavor enhancement, and a touch of umami.
To substitute bonito flakes, use it in salads, sandwiches, wraps, noodles, soups, and vegetable plates.
To have a good chance of replacing bonito flakes with it, choose untoasted versions, and darker green ones.
It’s a hydrating, mineral and vitamin-rich, low-fat, and carb option. In many ways, it’s much healthier than bonito flakes, and also vegan.
Still, it adds an unnecessary sweetness, and briny tone to foods, we wouldn’t miss otherwise. However, we love nori for decorating food.
Nori is wonderful; it is just different. Instead of adapting it, top dishes with vegan garnishes such as sliced ginger, yuzu kosho, or a more highly flavored sauce such as ponzu.
Thai soy sauce and Golden Mountain sauce could also give you a helping hand in replacing Bonito Flakes better with Nori.
Why do we love bonito flakes so much? Because it’s a hit of umami, no fishiness. It gets you a savory, extra dimension on your plate that can’t be truly replaced.
And apparently, cats are fond of it too. So much so that it’s sold separately as a cat snack.
This Japanese fish delicacy is created with dried and smoked skipjack tuna that has been shaved to flakes with a special knife called a “katsuramuki.”
We saved some pro ideas for last. Persistent readers can learn something from high-end chefs.
For a pro dashi without bonito flakes, add a PINCH of disodium inosinate. You can find it on Amazon, or in drug stores.
As a highly potent umami compound, it exceeds any amount of bonito flakes. This trick is fairly common in fine-dining restaurants.
Even better, with some added liquid smoke; one single drop per 3 cups of liquid.
Vegan or fishy, vegetables or meats, you have several options to choose from when missing bonito flakes.
Famous and well-known flavors are the hardest to replace. Yet knowing how a flavor works can go a long way in substituting it.
The Bonito flakes replacements listed above will do an excellent job in its place.