While not a popular choice at the dinner table in the United States, the fish that are commonly called bonito are considered a delicacy in the countries of the northern Mediterranean and Black Sea.
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What are Bonito?
Bonito are a closely related tribe of fish of the family Scombridae, comprising the mackerels, the tunas, and the bonitos. Bonito hail from a wide assortment of genuses and species, and they can be found in one form or another in most of the world’s oceans and seas. In America, you can fish the plain bonito (Orcynopsis unicolor), the Pacific bonito (Sarda lineolata), the eastern Pacific bonito (Sarda chiliensis), and the Atlantic bonito (Sarda sarda).
Every species in this family has two distinctive dorsal fins, a tail built for incredible speed, and a sleek, streamlined body. You’ll also see a series of “finlets’ extending from the second dorsal fin on the dorsal and ventral sides toward the tail. No member of this family has scales.
Bonito are sandwiched between mackerel and tuna in terms of size. For instance, the Atlantic bonito typically grow to about 30 inches and 11 to 13 pounds. By comparison, mackerel of all species are much smaller, usually about a foot, and weigh just a few pounds. Obviously, tuna are much, much larger.
What Does Bonito Taste Like?
As you’d expect, something like a combination of mackerel and tuna. Expect flesh that’s not quite as firm as tuna, and an oilier, fattier flavor as well. This makes bonito especially nice when paired with strong flavors, as is common in Spain and the Balkans.
Younger and smaller bonito will have flesh that is very similar to skipjack tuna, being lighter in color and taste.
Considered a delicacy in many cultures, nearly everyone agrees that bonito is delicious when grilled.
In the Balkans and Turkey, young bonito is often preserved and served with sliced red onion as mezze–snacks to accompany drinking and socializing.
It’s generally wise to bleed these fish immediately after catching them, and it will improve the flavor. Ice is essential as well, as they spoil quickly.
Eat properly prepared bonito once, and you’ll know why it’s so popular abroad!
Marmitako: Basque bonito stew with potatoes
I adapted this recipe from the Spanish version that uses tuna. This thick, warming stew is an ideal spring dish that brings the flavors of Spain to your table.
Preparation time: 45 minutes
- 2 dried choricero or ancho chiles
- 1 pound fresh bonito fillet
- Coarse salt
- 4 russet potatoes, about 2 pounds total weight
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and cut lengthwise into narrow strips
- 1 tablespoon sweet pimentón or paprika
The first step is to rehydrate the dried chiles. In a bowl that can withstand heat, cover the dried chiles with boiling water, and let stand for 30 minutes. Discard the water, slit the chiles open, and scrape off the flesh with the edge of a knife, discarding the seeds, skins, and stems.
Set the flesh aside.
Cut the bonito into small pieces. Sprinkle with coarse salt and set aside.
Peel the potatoes. Make a small cut in each potato and then break it open. The idea is to open, but not half, each potato. Set the potato pieces aside.
In a stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the vegetables and the flesh from the chiles, and saute for 5 minutes on medium-low heat, or until the onion and bell pepper have begun to soften and the onion becomes translucent.
Add the potatoes and pimentón and mix well. Season with a coarse salt, and add water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring to a boil, cover, decrease the heat to medium-low, and cook for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender.
Add the bonito pieces to the pot and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the fish is opaque.
Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 minutes before serving.
I recommend mashing a few of the potatoes with a form to release more starch into the stew. Just press them against the side of the pot.
Reheat gently to serving temperature, and ladle into warmed bowls.
Grilled Bonito Steaks
This simple recipe highlights the incredible flavor of bonito, and if you’re a fan of grilled fish, it’s sure to be a favorite.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
- bonito steaks, 2 per person for a generous portion, roughly one inch thick
- sea salt
- black pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbs. Smoked paprika
- 1 tsp.garlic powder
- the juice of one lemon
Begin by adding salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, lemon juice, and a small drizzle of olive oil to the steaks. Gently rub the marinade to cover.
Place the marinated steaks into a baking pan, cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and refrigerate overnight.
On a medium-high grill, sear the bonito steaks for 2-3 minutes per side, or until cooked through. The steaks should flake easily with a fork.
Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of olive oil.
While many anglers consider the bonito as little more than a bait fish, its popularity in Mediterranean cuisine should get you thinking a bit more about how this delicious fish can find a place on your table.
Check out our other fish recipes!