I’m not sure I remember the first time I ate tarako, but I’m almost positive i didn’t know what it was or, as a teenage American, I almost definitely wouldn’t have. (It is fish eggs.) I would guess that the first time I had it was probably in an onigiri riceball, randomly grabbed off a Family Mart shelf somewhere (perhaps they were out of tuna), and that, finding it unobjectionable, I continued to eat it. Probably. In any case, by the time I left Tokyo to come back to the US for college, it was one of my favorite foods. It’s delicious in an onigiri, plain on top of rice, mixed with mochi and cheese in a variety of dishes, or maybe somewhat strangely, in spaghetti. Which is what we’re making here.
Tarako is the eggs of the cod (tara, タラ or 鱈), and tarako literally means cod-children. In this case, the fish that’s used is a actually Alaskan pollock, a member of the cod family which you may know from such gourmet meals as McDonalds’ filet-o-fish sandwich. The eggs are collected in their little egg sacs and salted. What you buy in the store is a little box of intact egg sacs, either fresh or frozen. Often, the eggs are marinated in a blend of spicy spices after they’re salted, and sold as spicy cod roe (karashi mentaiko, 辛子明太子, apparently derived from the original Korean name of the fish, myeongtae). The “spicy” version is actually not particularly spicy at all, and you can make the recipe below with either tarako or mentaiko. I prefer the mild, oceany flavor of tarako, but unfortunately our local Korean supermarket usually only stocks frozen mentaiko. But that’s good enough for me!
If, like me, you were wondering what absolute genius came up with the idea of topping perfectly good spaghetti with fish eggs and seaweed, don’t worry, we have an answer. According to Japanese Wikipedia, it was invented in the 1960s by Takayasu Narimatsu, the proprietor of a spaghetti shop in Shibuya, Tokyo, called “Hole in the Wall” (壁の穴), when a regular customer received a gift of caviar and asked the restaurant to make spaghetti out of it. The best version I ever had was at a tiny spaghetti store called Hashiya, in Tokyo, which I realized while writing this blog closed last May after 44 years. Great sadness.
When it’s made right, it’s very creamy and quite heavy, maybe a bit heavier than I’d like for a quick weekday meal. I spent a while experimenting with different recipes to find a version that was both creamy and not overwhelming, and while I’m sure the recipe below would probably offend the chefs at Hashiya (*sniff*), it was the definite taste-test winner in our house. A lot of recipes (from a lot of good recipe sites) use just tarako and butter for the sauce. Others use heavy cream — like I’m sure the restaurants do — but the version that worked best for me at home used a bit of milk and, gulp, mayonnaise.
I realize I’m probably not doing a great job of selling this dish, but it’s delicious, three-year old friendly, and only takes a few minutes to make. When I made the last of many versions in preparation for this blog, I gave myself an adult-size bowl and our three-year old a three-year old size bowl and fork. She took one bite, grinned, then requested to trade bowls with me because she wanted more. Then she requested to trade forks with me so she could shovel it into her mouth faster. You really should try it.
INGREDIENTS (for 2 servings)
- 200g spaghetti
- 60g tarako or mentaiko — Approximately two egg sacs.
- 2tbsp (30g) unsalted butter
- 1tbsp (15g) Japanese mayonnaise — Make sure to use Japanese mayo, like Kewpie, not American mayo or whatever trendy mayo substitute they’re selling these days.
- 2tbsp (30g) whole milk — This thing is supposed to be creamy, so I imagine it would be pretty sad with skim milk, though I wouldn’t know because I don’t have any of that tasteless milk-water in my house.
- 1tsp (5g) soy sauce — You can vary this depending on how salty you like it and what kind of fish eggs your using, anywhere from half a teaspoon to two teaspoons.
- Toppings! — Personally, I always put strips of dried seaweed (kizami nori) on this, but apparently it’s also delicious with shiso leaves. At the dearly departed Hashiya, I always ordered it topped with sea urchin (uni), but that seems excessive for making at home.
- Remove the eggs from the egg sac. Cut down the middle of one side, open it up, and scrape the eggs out into a large bowl.
- Add room temperature butter, mayonnaise, milk, and soy sauce to the fish eggs bowl.
- Cook spaghetti.
- Drain spaghetti and put into the bowl with the sauce ingredients immediately. Mix.
Top with trips of dried seaweed, shiso leaves, or, if you’re feeling fancy, a big dollop of MORE FISH EGGS or uni.