One food which I consider uniquely Japanese is tarako, also mistakenly referred to as mentaiko. This article explains the subtle difference between these two types of pollock (or cod) roe and how some Japanese prefer one over the other.
What is Tarako?
Tarako is plain, salted sacks of pollock or cod roe. The tiny roe are packed tightly together and encased in a very thin membrane. It is the roe of the Alaskan pollock fish, which is part of the cod family.
The Japanese word, tarako, literally translates to children of cod: “tara” meaning cod, and “ko” which means children. Tarako is typically sold raw, and usually identified by its neutral color which is a nude, almost beige, with light pink undertones.
What is Mentaiko?
Mentaiko is identical to tarako in that it is a sack of salted cod roe, but differ from tarako in that the roe is marinated in different seasonings and spices to create an array of subtly different flavor profiles. You’ll find that raw mentaiko is offered in different colors, ranging from a muted pink to bright red, depending on the food manufacturer. Mentaiko is sometimes referred to as “karashi mentaiko”.
What is Karashi Mentaiko?
“Karashi” in Japanese means spicy. Karashi Mentaiko is the spicy version of mentaiko which is seasoned with red chili pepper spices, as well as rolled in togarashi, or Japanese red chili pepper, for an extra kick.
Karashi mentaiko is sold raw in varying degrees of spiciness and hues of red or dark pink. In Japanese, spicy cod roe is also referred to as simply “mentaiko”.
How Does Tarako and Mentaiko Taste?
Tarako and mentaiko are packed with flavors of the sea. It's both salty and filled with seafood essence, but I wouldn't go so far as to label it as "fishy".
When cooked encased in the sac membrane, the tiny roe becomes a rich and thick, almost paste-like texture. It's can be hearty. When the roe is eaten raw, the tiny eggs create an almost sauce-like texture.
How Do You Eat Tarako, Mentaiko, and Karashi Mentaiko?
Tarako and mentaiko isn’t for everyone. You’ll either love it or hate it. If you’re lucky and fall into the former category, you’ll likely enjoy the versatility of cooking with cod roe. Depending on your preference, it can be enjoyed either raw or cooked. It can also be cooked either with the exterior membrane of the roe sac in tact, or with the membrane removed.
Examples of How Cod Roe is Enjoyed in Japanese Cuisine
- Cod Roe and Steamed Rice - This is one of the most basic ways to enjoy cod roe, either raw or cooked and served with a bowl of steamed rice. Either tarako or mentaiko may be used. With the membrane in tact, the cod roe may be fully cooked by heating it in a pan with olive oil, or in the microwave. The roe can also be cooked for a short amount of time so that the outside is cooked but the inside remains raw. In Japanese cuisine this cooking technique is known as “tataki”.
- Tarako or Mentaiko Rice Ball (Onigiri) - This is one of the most popular ways that cod roe is served in Japan. A small piece of cooked cod roe is cut and then wrapped in rice and seaweed to make a rice ball. It's a great snack or accompaniment to a Japanese bento.
- Mentaiko Pasta - After rice balls, mentaiko cooked with spaghetti noodles is probably one of the most popular cod roe dishes in Japanese cuisine. The roe can either be cooked into the sauce, or it can be used raw by incorporating with the pasta just prior to serving. Follow links for recipes: Cooked Mentaiko Pasta.
- Mentaiko Tempura - Perhaps less common in the West, but notable in Japan, is mentaiko tempura. Mentaiko is commonly wrapped in a shiso leaf and then dipped in a tempura batter and fried. It is served with tempura sauce for dipping.
- Mentaiko Sushi - Karashi mentaiko is removed from the sac membrane, then used to garnish sushi rice wrapped with seaweed.
- Mentaiko Spread - This dish is perhaps more Westernized in that cooked tarako or karashi mentaiko is mixed with ingredients such as mayonnaise and seasonings to create a thick, flavorful spread that is used to garnish bread or toast. Bakery items with mentaiko spread are not uncommon.
Where to Buy Tarako and Mentaiko
Both tarako and mentaiko are readily available at Japanese grocery stores, as well as other Asian (Chinese and Korean) supermarkets in the refrigerated and frozen sections. Some select Japanese groceries offer online sales and delivery.