Mentaiko (spicy cod roe) paired with sautéed shrimp, fresh shiso (perilla leaves) and kizami nori in a rich cream sauce over pasta.
WHAT IS MENTAIKO?
One of my favorite things to eat is Mentaiko. It is more of an esoteric dish but definitely worth a try as it has become something that I crave from time to time. This Mentaiko Pasta recipe looks like a lot, but it is actually very easy to make and something I can prepare for dinner when I don’t have a lot of time.
The simplest explanation is that it is salt cured pollack (cod) roe infused with red chili pepper. It is the same as tarako, however the latter is not spicy. It is common to eat mentaiko with rice or noodles. If you enjoy briny, salty tasting roe then read on.
I first discovered my love for mentaiko in the sushi bar. One of my favorite combinations is a temaki (handroll) filled with thin cut strips of yamaimo (mountain yam), mentaiko and shiso leaf. The combination dipped in fresh wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce) has an amazing umami flavor and texture combination. I have also had mentaiko with tonkotsu ramen. It is interesting to note that karashi-mentaiko or spicy cod roe originated in Hakata, Japan. This is the same birthplace as the legendary tonkotsu broth made from pork bones and fat that have been cooked down to an unctuous, rich and creamy white broth.
Japanese pasta or spaghetti is not traditional Italian, but it shares many similarities. I have lived in two different cities that had Japanese pasta restaurants. The experience is different, but the flavors and combinations are delicious and sometimes intriguing if you are not hindered by certain expectations. Using mentaiko in pasta is similar to the use of bottarga, which is a fish roe from tuna or gray mullet seen in pasta dishes around the Mediterranean.
Food from the Mediterranean region is probably my second favorite after Japanese because of the clean flavors that highlight the integrity of products and ingredients. Just because a recipe claims authenticity, it is not necessarily so. Authenticity often relies on specific regional ingredients or preparation methods. I stand by my Bolognese recipe, but there are many different and great representations.
In any case, I wanted to share my version of mentaiko pasta that is part of my family’s regular rotation. A common method is to use mayonnaise, but I opted for a cream sauce instead. I have also used scallops in place of shrimp, but good scallops are sometimes hard to find. Before you go shopping don’t forget some good crusty sourdough or ciabatta or even a French baguette to mop up the cream sauce.
I always start by peeling the shrimp then preparing the shrimp stock first. While the stock is cooking then prep shrimp, mentaiko and ingredients for cream sauce. If you are using chicken stock or chicken broth, skip this step. I worked this into the recipe one day when I was making the pasta dish and I didn’t have any chicken stock on hand.
Wash the shrimp in clean cold water than drain. Peel the shells (and heads if head-on) and set aside. If you are using heads then rinse out the innards.
Add shells (and heads) to a small pot and fill with cold water. Add the garlic, ginger, peppercorns, green onion stems, lemon and bay leaves.
Turn to a high and bring to a boil. Once the stock starts boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
*CrossEat Tip : If you have aromatics such as parsley, basil, Thai basil, cilantro or lemongrass add these to the pot as well. They will infuse well giving you a more flavorful stock.
PREPARING THE MENTAIKO
Mentaiko usually comes packaged like this. They do come in smaller and larger quantities. It generally comes frozen and is better kept in the freezer in an airtight package for longer shelf life. I prefer mentaiko from Japan.
Remove roe from sacs with a spoon and refrigerate until ready to use.
The outer sac is edible, but for the purpose of this dish we only want the inner creamy part of the roe. Why is it sold in the sac? Mentaiko is sometimes served as an appetizer by itself. In a restaurant it is thinly sliced and the sac keeps it together. Mentaiko can also be sautéed or grilled to a nice medium rare. The sac enables you to do that without falling apart. The heat from the grill lightly cooks the outside enhancing the flavor and providing a nice texture that is eaten with a bowl of rice.
WHERE CAN I GET MENTAIKO?
Any Japanese market should have it. I have also seen it at some Chinese and Korean markets in the frozen seafood section. You could also purchase online. S&B makes a shelf table version that comes in individual serving packets. It’s decent, but not the same.
COOKING THE SHRIMP
If you prefer, devein shrimp then cut each shrimp into 3-4 bite size pieces. You could also leave the shrimp whole. Season with garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, salt and pepper. Toss with olive oil.
For presentation whole shrimp looks nice, but it’s much easier to eat to cut the shrimp in bite sized pieces. Heat a sauté pan over medium-high then add your shrimp. Cook till about 90% done and remove from pan.
The shrimp will be finished in the cream sauce.
I use the same pan to keep all the flavor from the shrimp in the sauce. Re-heat saucepan over medium-high heat than add butter. Sweat the garlic and shallots in the butter until translucent.
Use a spatula or wooden spoon to make sure the cooking is even. This should only take about a minute or two.
Next, sift in the flour and whisk till you form a caramel colored roux.
Add wine and stir together with the roux.
Slowly add stock to the pan then whisk constantly till the sauce is an even texture. Add in the heavy cream and whisk together.
Stir in the parmesan cheese. Once it starts to bubble lightly, reduce heat to a medium-low setting. Add lemon juice, sugar and season with salt and pepper. Depending on the thickness that you want you can slowly reduce or turn the heat down to very low until ready to use.
This is what the finished cream sauce should look like.
*Tasting Notes: Parmesan cheese is optional. I add it into the recipe if I have it, but it tastes fine without it as well.
Really thin sliced green onions that have been washed in cold water then drained and chilled are one of the best accompaniments. This can be done ahead. See our upcoming blog on prepping and storing green onions.
Julienne 2-3 shiso leaves. You need a sharp knife in order not to bruise the leaves. I recommend cutting them in half then stacking them before cutting.
**Tasting Notes: adding shiso to this dish is like adding basil to Italian pasta. It brings a nice herbaceous flavor that compliments the dish.
Kizami nori are thin strips of pressed seaweed. They can be bought this way or you could cut them by hand with a sharp knife if you have whole sheets of seaweed. They should be no longer than 1″ long and as thin as possible.
PLATING THE MENTAIKO PASTA
Prepare your pasta noodles per instructions on the box or package. If you are ambitious enough or have the time to make fresh noodles even better. For this dish I think regular spaghetti works the best cooked to al dente.
Once you are ready to plate, bring the sauce back to a medium heat. Add shrimp back to the pan and cook through, then reduce heat to a low. Add noodles to each bowl. Ladle an equal amount of sauce and shrimp then lightly toss. Top each dish with a dollop of mentaiko. Then finish with shiso, green onions and some kizami nori. The best way to eat this is to mix everything together.
Depending on your preference many of the ingredients are optional. The dish still tastes great without the parmesan, shiso, kizami nori and even the green onions. Well, almost without the green onions. If you are gluten-free, you can use gluten-free pasta and I have been successful with using gluten free flour when preparing a roux. However, it doesn’t seem to work as a slurry for thickening sauces after they have been made.
Thank you for reading, hope you enjoy our delicious Mentaiko Pasta!
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