Sexy Feast: Setsuna, Shiso Tofu, and Sure Signs of Attraction

setsuna_tofu_300_0735If you go to Setsuna in Northgate, you’ll see that this Japanese restaurant has both a dinner menu and an izakaya menu. For those not familiar with izakaya dining, you get shareable small plates that are a perfect accompaniment to beer or sake. Think yakitori, potato croquettes, karaage (fried marinated chicken), gyoza, and a small selection of sushi rolls.

The izakaya menu also has some tofu dishes, including agedashi tofu (fried tofu with dashi sauce), avocado salad (avocado and tofu over greens), and tsukune (chicken and tofu meatballs). Of particular interest is the shiso tofu. It’s a simple dish of chilled tofu topped by shiso (an herb in the mint family but with more of a vegetal flavor), with the real star of the show being the top layer of katsuobushi, which are dried bonito (tuna) flakes.

So what does Setsuna’s chiso tofu teach us about sex?

It’s all about a moment of attraction.

Katsuobushi is made from a large filet of bonito (skipjack tuna) that is simmered, deboned, smoked repeatedly, sun-dried, and then allowed to develop a mold (to break down the fats and proteins). At the end of the process, you have a wood-like block of dried fish. In traditional times, one used a kezuriki, similar to a wood plane, to catch fish shavings in a box. Now, for convenience, people buy the bonito flakes prepackaged in a bag.

These shavings or flakes are a late but important addition to dishes like takoyaki and okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake). When the katsuobushi hits these hot dishes, the steam makes the flakes sway in a most mesmerizing way, which is why they’re often referred to as dancing fish flakes.

I’m reminded of this when I get the bowl of chiso tofu. The katsuobushi doesn’t move on cold food like this, but I still think about the sensuality of the flakes, which when dancing are visually arresting.

Also arresting is the aroma. It’s not nearly as strong as the smell generated by shaving the bonito using a kezuriki, but it’s there, perfuming the air and the senses.

And the taste is captivating. Like the cured tuna heart shavings I ate the week before at Altura, the katsuobushi has a deep, oceanic flavor, its umami boosting whatever it’s with.

The attraction one can feel toward katsuobushi is like the attraction one sometimes feels immediately upon meeting a potential lover. The way she or he moves is mesmerizing, stirring the soul. His or her perfume or natural smell is intoxicating, as is the taste of the skin or kiss once experienced.

Setsuna, according to the restaurant (and Buddhist philosophy) means “a precise moment in one’s life.” Whether that moment is your initial encounter with katsuobushi, or meeting that special someone for the first time or anew, getting a stirring of the senses is a sure sign of attraction and a moment in life to remember.

First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on November 3, 2011.

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