Imagine this: you’re five years old, visiting a new country and meeting distant relatives who speak little to no English. One evening, they invite you to their modest house outside Copenhagen for dinner. On the table are several small bowls of a mysterious, glistening substance in jewel tones of jet black, blood red, and rusty orange. Each bowl is accompanied by a tiny spoon, which you cautiously use to scoop up a sample of this mysterious substance. Suddenly, a shower of tiny bubbles explodes across your tongue in unison, and rush of sharp salinity overwhelms your palate. It is a peculiarly pleasurable experience – not necessarily delicious, but so novel that you reach for another tiny spoonful. And another. And yet another.
This was my introduction to fish roe, some twenty-odd years ago, while visiting family in Denmark with my half-Swedish and half-Danish grandmother. On that same trip, I sampled escargot, brioche, croissants, and sugar cubes soaked in espresso, but that first taste of fish roe remains one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. Unfortunately, roe is not a particularly frugal or ethical food; it connotes luxury and indulgence, and its production often involves a certain degree of cruelty. For these reasons, among others, it is not something I often feel a desire to consume.
Recently, however, I found myself compelled to revisit this distant memory. The impetus was nothing other than one of the most supremely subliminal pieces of marketing I have ever been subjected to. In this advertisement, a young blond haired, blue eyed girl playing on the beach is suddenly disrupted by a floating army of tarako-shaped Kewpie dolls descending from a giant fish roe mothership. As they float down toward the ocean, they sing a creepily juvenile refrain: tarako, tarako, tappuri tarako (cod roe, cod roe, full of cod roe). Suddenly, the ad cuts to an image of pasta being tossed with tarako sauce as a voice-over ensures viewers enthusiastically that the featured dish is, indeed, filled with plenty (tappuri!) of fish roe.
Taking a cue from Kewpie, I picked up some spicy (that is, likely artificially colored and flavored) mentaiko from the local Japanese market. (Throwing all caution to the wind, I bought roe that was both frozen and on sale.) After letting the stuff languish in the fridge for a few days, I finally got around to looking up recipes for fish roe pasta (a common preparation at casual cafes across Japan) on a popular Japanese recipe site. Most were dead simple and called for tossing cooked pasta with roe, olive oil, lemon juice, and black pepper, plus a few green garnishes. Instead, I sauteed the roe in an ample amount of butter, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it cooked. Meanwhile, a few handfuls of thick spaghetti went into a pot of heavily salted water, the starchy remainder of which would later provide body and binding power to the sauce. Finally, I snipped toasted nori into thin strips, sliced and soaked few scallions, and crumbled a handful of ricotta salata, which provided a bright and saline complement to the buttery sauce. The mentaiko, which had turned a seductive shade of pale pink, clung to the thick, chewy strands of pasta, creating a satisfying play of textures. And although the cooked roe didn’t pop in the mouth quite as pleasingly as the raw variety, it still solicited the surprise and delight of that first formative taste.
Mentaiko Spaghetti – 明太子スパゲティ
Serves 2 – 3
2 oz. (60 g) karashi mentaiko (spicy seasoned pollack roe), or other fish roe such as tarako (cod) or tobiko (flying fish)
5 oz. (140 g) spaghetti
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 oz. / 46 g) unsalted butter
Kizami nori, for garnish (or use 1/2 sheet toasted nori snipped into thin strips)
Thinly sliced scallions, for garnish (optional)
Julienned shiso (optional)
Crumbled ricotta salata
Cut a slit down the center of each egg sac and scrape out the roe. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saute pan over low heat; add the roe and a pinch of kosher salt and cook gently, breaking up pieces with wooden spoon, until the fish roe is light pink. When the pasta is almost done, drain and reserve 1/4 cup cooking water. Add the cooked pasta to the pan with the roe, 2 tablespoons pasta cooking water, and the remaining 1 tablespoons butter. Toss thoroughly, adding more pasta water as needed, until the pasta is coated with roe. Season to taste with salt, and garnish with nori, scallions, shiso (if using), and ricotta salata.