What is Mentaiko? Discover Japanese Mentaiko Pasta

by Flora Baker

What is Mentaiko? Discover Japanese Mentaiko Pasta

The idea of putting caviar on pasta might seem strange to some, but in Japan a version of this particular dish, using an ingredient called mentaiko, is extremely popular throughout the country. 

 Mentaiko over a steaming bowl of rice.

So what is mentaiko exactly? The ingredient itself is a pollock or cod roe that’s been cured in salt and then marinated in powdered spices and chilies. It’s typically sold as an intact sac or lobe, rather than in loose egg form like caviar would be. 

Mentaiko is eaten in both its raw and cooked form, and while it can be eaten on its own, the true joy of mentaiko is its versatility. It’s incorporated into a variety of different dishes including, somewhat surprisingly, pasta! The mentaiko is added to a cream-based sauce and mixed with spaghetti to make a deliciously cream and salty dish with just a hint of spice. 

Where does Mentaiko Come From? 

Mentaiko is hugely popular in Japan, but it doesn’t actually originate from there. In fact, mentaiko hails from Korea, where fishermen in the 17th century capitalized on the delicious taste of fish eggs that came from huge numbers of pollock along the Korean coastline. 

Eventually export of mentaiko began to Japan, first landing in the nearest Japanese city of Fukuoka (just a four hour ferry ride across the ocean from Busan, South Korea). In 1949 a Japanese version of mentaiko arrived on the country’s shores courtesy of a Korean man named Toshio Kawahara, who founded Japan’s first and oldest mentaiko company. The Japanese love of mentaiko exploded from there ever since. 

Today, mentaiko is still particularly popular in Fukuoka, a city in Northern Kyushu prefecture. Fukuoka has mentaiko-themed souvenirs for sale as well as plenty of specialty stores selling the renowned delicacy itself. You can try Mentai Curry Karinto, a fried dough snack, for yourself with Bokksu!

Mentaiko vs Tarako: What Does Mentaiko Taste Like? 

Mentaiko is often mistaken for tarako – an easy enough error, seeing as both tarako and mentaiko are traditional seafood ingredients in Japan made from salted pollock or cod roe. However, where mentaiko has been marinated in chili peppers and spice, tarako has only been marinated in salt. 

 A close up shot of mentaiko.

Tarako is mild and simple: it has a light pink color, and a tender texture. Mentaiko has much more vivid and deep color and flavor than tarako, although the salt still comes through – as does the delicate fish flavor. Mentaiko is also generally more popular than tarako, probably because the spicy seasoning is what makes it so tasty. 

Variations of Mentaiko

When you see raw mentaiko for sale, it may well be in a range of colors from pink to bright red. This is usually a good indicator of the spiciness levels: the redder it appears, the spicier it will taste. If you’re buying mentaiko from a Japanese grocery store, keep an eye out for the word ‘karashi’ on the packaging, as that will indicate its spiciness. 

Flavor wise, there’s a few varieties of mentaiko to choose from, often depending on the format it comes in. Instead of just using chili pepper, mentaiko can also be marinated with yuzu or with kombu. 

Because of its strong flavor, mentaiko is best eaten in small quantities – though that doesn’t stop the imaginative ways it’s been incorporated into Japanese dishes. 

How is Mentaiko Eaten? 

Cod roe is often served cold and eaten by itself as a focal point of the meal in Scandinavian cuisine, but in Japan mentaiko can be prepared in a number of ways, both raw and cooked, which makes it a popular filling in various dishes. 

You’re most likely to see mentaiko on the menu as a filling for onigiri rice balls, as a side dish alongside steamed rice, or as a topping for ochazuke (green-tea-over-rice), ramen, and rice bowls. You can use mentaiko in sushi, as a spread when mixed with Japanese mayonnaise, or even make tempura with the cod roe lobe itself. 

And the most unexpected yet most common dish that includes mentaiko? The renowned and much loved mentaiko spaghetti! 

How To Cook Mentaiko Pasta

Mentaiko pasta is a quick, easy and classic Japanese dish which uses mentaiko to add a delicious depth to the pasta sauce. Mentaiko pasta can either be a simple dish with only the addition of soy sauce and butter to the roe, or you can be much more extravagant and use cream, milk and/or mayonnaise to really hit that decadently creamy spot. 

Whatever your preference, the recipe process is pretty much the same: just prepare your pasta noodles as usual, and make a sauce separately with butter, olive oil, black pepper, soy sauce and either your cream or milk (this liquid will stop your pasta noodles from sticking together).  

When the pasta is ready, you can toss it in the cream sauce and mix with the mentaiko at the last minute. As the pasta’s residual heat hits the tiny fish eggs, the sauce will cook and take on the flavor of your mentaiko, but it does also mean you’ll lose that satisfying ‘pop’ texture from the uncooked eggs. If you’re a fan of a textured bite, simply use a little more mentaiko as a garnish. You’d also be remiss to omit the final garnishing step: strips of nori seaweed, which give a much-needed depth of flavor to the overall dish. 

Mentaiko has a strong umami flavor as well as salt, but you can also add in some parmesan for additional depth. 

How To Try Mentaiko For Yourself 

Mentaiko is used to flavor plenty of snack foods, like mentaiko chips and crackers. These snacks are a good middle ground if the taste of pure mentaiko on its own is too intense for your taste buds! 

Fresh mentaiko can be pretty expensive, so trying it at a restaurant might be your best bet.

You can also dine out on a mentaiko-flavored dish - Mentaiko spaghetti in particular is a perfect drunk food, and you’ll see it in late night joints across Japan. 

Home cooks can do well with buying frozen mentaiko and using this to cook with. Stored fresh in the fridge, it should keep for around two weeks. 

Reheating isn’t really an option for mentaiko, as the fish eggs will be overcooked. As a result it’s more sensible to store your leftover mentaiko in the freezer until you plan to eat it. Luckily, mentaiko can be safely stored in the freezer for up to a year. As the mentaiko roe sacs are pretty small they don’t take long to defrost: either set them in the fridge or place in cold water for 30 minutes. 

Mentaiko can also be bought in a can, tube or sachet, making it easier to squeeze out the desired serving size. It won’t freeze to a solid block so can be defrosted quickly when you want to use it. 

You can find mentaiko at various Asian grocery stores or from our online Asian grocery store, Bokksu Boutique. Why not buy yourself some mentaiko pasta sauce in a ready-to-make sachet and whip up your own mentaiko spaghetti? 


Author Bio

Flora Baker is a writer, blogger and author based in London, UK. She runs the award-winning travel website Flora The Explorer and has written for Coastal Living, Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler.