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Tarako: The Japanese Dish Your Taste Buds Deserve

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in food

If you’ve ever had tarako, or “roe,” then you’ll know how it treats your taste buds. And it only gets better with pollock roe.

Pollock roe can be used in a lot of dishes, including our very own pasta, but it can also be eaten alone. And it is also from pollock roe that we get the famous Japanese Tarako.

Though in America, this roe isn’t quite as famous as caviar roe or salmon roe, it is very famous in Japan, Korea, and Russia. Soon enough, this roe could be topping America’s roe charts as well, but before then, let’s get you acquainted with this mild-tasting roe.

Getting Acquainted with the Pollock Roe

Pollock roe is also referred to as pollock roe or cod roe. The roe is gotten from a fish species of the cod family: the Alaska or walleye pollock. Roe is basically the eggs of a fish. For some fish, it could refer to the sperm or the ovaries, mostly in crustaceans. For the Alaska pollock, it is specifically the eggs.

A very interesting thing to know about this cod species, the Alaska pollock, is that it is the national fish of Korea. Yeah, you read that right.

That’s how much the Koreans love this fish.

Pollock roe usually comes encased in a membranous sac—skin that is edible and chewy. The roe itself can be eaten raw. The pollock roe is sometimes prepared with the skin still on, to maintain the structural integrity of the roe.

Though more widely associated with Japanese cuisine, the eating of these Japanese fish eggs actually originated in Korea and has been a part of Korean cuisine since as far back as 1392, which was the start of the Joseon era. It found its way to Japan around the end of the second world war, many decades after Koreans were already enjoying this dish.

The most common way of enjoying roe is salted, and salted pollock roe (or salted cod roe) is eaten mainly in Korea, Japan, and Russia.

In Korea, pollock roe is called myeongnan while salted pollock roe is called myeongnan-jeot. Salted cod roe serves as a side dish if raw, dried, or cooked. It can also be served with alcoholic drinks or incorporated into dishes like bokkeum-bap (fried rice) and even pizza! The preparation process for making salted pollock roe usually involves washing the roe with salted water, draining it after a few days, and then marinating it with chili powder and garlic.

In Russia, the term ikra mintaya refers to both the raw pollock roe and the salted type. The Russians mainly use it as a sandwich spread.

And now for Japan: tarako is used to refer to the fresh and salted pollock roe while mentaiko or karashi mentaiko is used to refer to spicy pollock roe, a less mild version of tarako.

To classify them broadly, you can group pollock roe and cod roe into two groups, but a narrower classification will group these into three categories.

Types of cod roe:

  1. Tarako
  2. Mentaiko

The third classification would be karashi mentaiko, but karashi mentaiko is almost always referred to as simply “mentaiko.” Rarely, are the two types separated.

What is Tarako?

Tarako, a Japanese word, is a combination of two words: tara and ko. Tara means cod while ko means children, so basically the word tarako means children of cod, which sounds about right. Tarako are salted, skin-like sacks filled with the roe. Apart from the fact that they are salted, they’re basically plain, free from the usual fishy aftertaste that’s associated with seafood.

These are typically sold raw and can be eaten just like that or cooked. The natural appearance is a nude color with varying degrees of pink undertones. In the past, it was traditionally dyed a bright red color, though this practice is fading slowly due to the increased awareness surrounding the dangers of food coloring.

Mentaiko: Unlike tarako, mentaiko are usually marinated in different seasonings and spices, thus they’re more flavorful than tarako. The raw ones usually come in different colors due to the various food colorings being used, and sometimes due to the marinating ingredients.

Karashi mentaiko, on the other hand, simply means “spicy mentaiko,” and this is the most popular type of mentaiko, making both terms taken for one and the same. This is basically mentaiko that has been seasoned with red chili peppers such as togarashi or Japanese red chili peppers.

Spicy pollock roe is also sold in varying degrees of spiciness, and just like mentaiko, it comes in different colors. Both usually come in colors ranging from mild pink to dark red, and can also be eaten either raw or cooked.

Tarako, mentaiko, and karashi mentaiko can be bought at Japanese grocery stores and Asian supermarkets in the frozen or refrigerated sections. If you can’t find them there, you can consider purchasing yours online. You might get lucky and purchase an Alaska pollock with roe, but the chances of that are really slim.

Amazing Tarako Recipes To Try

Tarako, mentaiko, or karashi mentaiko are all interchangeably used in most recipes. It actually depends on what you like. If you want an ordinary salted cod roe, then tarako is what you should use. For a more flavorful cod roe, there’s mentaiko, and if you have a thing for spicy Japanese fish eggs, then karashi mentaiko is literally begging to be used.

So what are the ways you can use tarako?

  1. As tarako. Tarako can be served plain with nothing else added to it. When served plain, it could be for either breakfast (most common) or for a quick snack.
  2. Tarako pasta: This is one of the most popular ways cod roe can be used in Japanese cuisine. The tarako can either be used to make the pasta sauce by mixing it with mayonnaise or butter, or as a raw or cooked side dish to the pasta. This dish is usually garnished with thin nori (dried laver seaweed) strips and shiso leaves.
  3. Tarako with red chili pepper flakes. Spicy and delicious.
  4. Tarako rice ball (onigiri): As a salted cod roe dish, onigiri is equally famous as tarako pasta, and it uses the tarako as its filling. It is usually served as a snack or kept in the Japanese bento (lunch box) to be eaten later. This dish is made by wrapping a piece of cooked tarako with rice and seaweed into a rice ball. Though the tarako is usually cooked, it can also be used raw, but only if you plan to eat the Japanese rice balls immediately.
  5. Tarako spread: Though more commonly used as a spread in Russia, the Japanese still very much love tarako as a spread for sandwiches, bread, and toast. When used as a spread, it is advisable that the pollock roe be cooked with its skin so that it can easily turn paste-like in texture after being mixed with mayonnaise and some other seasonings. The Russian version is usually canned and only includes oil with no extra seasoning.
  6. Pollock roe and steamed rice: As a side dish to your plate of steamed rice, pollock roe could be served either raw or cooked. The roe is most often cooked with the skin by heating it up in a pan of olive oil. Sometimes, the Japanese cooking technique tataki is used to make the outside cook while the inside remains raw.
  7. Mentaiko with sake: Mentaiko is the preferred option to eat alone with sake. However, tarako can also be used.
  8. Tarako sushi: You didn’t see this one coming, huh? Well, tarako without its skin can be used to garnish your seaweed-wrapped sushi rice.
  9. Mentaiko or tarako tempura: Wrap your preferred cod roe with shiso leaf, then dip it in your tempura batter and fry it. Pair this fried product with your tempura sauce (a dipping sauce) and you have mentaiko or tarako tempura ready to serve.
  10. Topping for ochazuke: Ochazuke is a Japanese dish that’s known more simply as chazuke. The dish is made by drizzling hot water, dashi, or even green tea over cooked rice, then adding other ingredients like tarako for a topping.

Some of these recipes could be paired with mentaiko, not tarako,  as the prefix, depending on what pollock roe is being used to make the dish. Salty or spicy, it all depends on how you want it.

To remove the pollock roe from the skin after it has been cooked, make a small tear on the skin and then squeeze out the roe. Or you could just scrape it out.

How To Make Tarako Pasta

Really, it wouldn’t be fair if I let you go without one pollock roe dish recipe, so here’s a recipe for tarako pasta. This recipe takes less than 20 minutes to prepare and will serve 4 people well.

Things you’ll need:

  • 350 g of spaghetti
  • 8 shiso leaves, julienned
  • ¼ cup of tarako
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt (or table salt), or to taste.
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce.
  • ¼ cup of milk (or cream)
  • 1 tablespoon of melted butter.
  • 1 to 2 teaspoon lemon juice or a dash of olive oil (optional)
  • Shredded nori seaweed (optional)

The shiso leaves and the nori are for garnishing—the strong herb-like aroma of the shiso leaves will serve as a palate cleanser, leaving you with a refreshing aftertaste.

Other optional ingredients you should consider adding are shimeji mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, kombu tea, etc. Remember, in place of tarako, you can always use karashi mentaiko.

Instructions:

  1. Place a pot of water on the stovetop and bring it to a boil. Then add spaghetti and the tablespoon of salt. Allow the pasta to get done yet still firm—al dente to be precise. Check the pasta label for directions on how long to boil.
  2. If your shiso leaves aren’t julienned yet, do that while your pasta is getting ready. Make a small tear on the skin of the tarako and squeeze out the salted cod roe, as described earlier.
  3. Add the squeezed-out tarako, milk or cream, melted butter, lemon juice or olive oil, and soy sauce into a bowl and mix them together well.
  4. Remove spaghetti from heat once it is al dente and drain. Add the drained pasta to the tarako sauce in the bowl and mix all ingredients together.
  5. Serve the tarako pasta garnished with shiso leaves and nori.

Note: As mentioned earlier, you can make your tarako a side dish instead of incorporating it into the spaghetti sauce.

This recipe is just one way to make a really delicious yet simple tarako pasta. Shaking things up is highly recommended, so add new stuff and see how the taste might be improved.

Another quick way of making your salted pollock roe sauce is to add the skinned roe to mentsuyu (a Japanese broth) and stir well before throwing the pasta into the mixture.

Pollock roe makes a fascinating way to work up an appetite. There are so many dishes for which this roe would come in handy. Don’t hesitate to buy yourself some tarako. From tarako, you could graduate to mentaiko, and after that, get yourself some karashi mentaiko. Of course, don’t forget to enjoy the different tastes and flavors of each variety.

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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