As a child I loved small roe. In my neighbor’s kitchen I would often find bowls of tiny pink cooked fish eggs. They were firm and sweet and I loved them. We never had them at home as my mother wasn’t one for cooking, except for her yearly pot of curry stew. I was always happy to find them on my neighbor’s table and it took me years to figure out what they were. Karako are simply salt cured sacs of Pollack roe. Often cooked and served in onigiri or rice balls, the tiny eggs are fun to eat, especially if you happen to be a small child.
There are two kinds of cured Pollack roe commonly used in Japanese kitchens: karako and mentaiko. Oddly they are often referred to as cod roe even though they are made from the egg sacs of pollack, perhaps it's a quirk of translation that has lingered over the years. In Japanese homes they are basic staples. You can buy them ready made in Japanese supermarkets here in the United States. While Karako is simply salt cured, Mentaiko is salt and chili cured. Mentaiko cures may contain sake, yuzu, kombu or any number of other ingredients, depending on the chef, or they can be as simple as salt and chili powder. The eggs are tiny and can range in hues from light pink to a bright orange-red from the seasonings. They are salty and spicy and soft against the tongue. Mentaiko are seen in rice balls and salad dressings, but perhaps one of Japan’s best loved dishes with this spicy roe is a creamy pasta dish most often served at home.
When Alex first made the seaweed noodles, mentaiko immediately popped into my head. I needed to go shopping at Mitsuwa, a Japanese supermarket just over an hour away by car. To say that he was less than enthusiastic about the idea would be an understatement. He grumbled a bit and proceeded to ignore the idea until I told him I was going to pack up Amaya and go by myself. Bright and early the next morning he volunteered to drive us. Because as much as he didn’t want to trek out there, he certainly didn’t want to miss out on any cool ingredients that might be available. We found fresh yuzu and sudachi, beautiful daikon, several condiments, spicy nori strips, long Japanese onions, and of course, my mentaiko.
I decided on a warm noodle dish. We made a sauce with a touch of Kewpi mayonnaise, buttermilk, yuzu juice, and yuzu kosho and then generously thickened it with the mentaiko. A condiment of minced jalapeno, pickled ginger and garlic chives added texture and brightness to the seaweed pasta and a touch of seaweed puree finished things off. Mentaiko pasta, just not exactly the way your mother might have made it.