Why Japanese Mentaiko Is Getting Popular in America

S4ri Kum

“I dumped my date to eat mentaiko,” reads a throw pillow on the Amazon search page. If upholstered encomiums to fish eggs aren’t your style, the site has 165 other (mostly) edible iterations of the stuff.

Think of karashi mentaiko, or sacs of salted cod roe that have been marinated in powdered chiles and spices, as caviar’s Japanese cousin. Spicy and mildly fishy, it has lurked flirtatiously on restaurant menus and in international snack aisles for the last decade. But now, thanks to a combination of factors, including the recent proliferation of wafu restaurants around the country, mentaiko is now more recognizable than ever in America’s collective consciousness. Its name translates to “children of the cod” in English, which brings a certain Stephen King novel to mind. In this case, be very scared of how much you’re going to love mentaiko, because it’s about to be everywhere.

In a sense, mentaiko descends from a long lineage of oceanic hot girl foods. Its flavor is more of an accent than an avalanche: Unlike tinned sardines or anchovies, mentaiko exudes a quiet brininess. Its slight salinity gives it more in common with kombu or wafer-thin bonito flakes than a forkful of StarKist straight from the can, while its creamy profile lends it a textural similarity to uni or avocado. Every pinch of mentaiko is a sensory universe, one rife with the fifth taste and lacking the clean-up that typically accompanies watery cans of tuna or fishy oil splatters. Your kitchen counter, along with your tastebuds, will thank you.

Mentaiko’s origins go back to 15th-century Korea, where it was known as myeongnanjeot. It made its way to Japan in the mid-1940s with Japanese citizens who were repatriated after Japan’s occupation of Korea. After World War II, Kawahara Toshio, a Japanese businessman returning to Fukuoka, Japan from Busan, modified the recipe to suit Japanese palates by substituting ingredients like togarashi for gochugaru, creating mentaiko. Toshio’s factory building still stands as a specialty food market, and Fukuoka has since become known as the mentaiko capital of the world; it even has its own mentaiko mascot that’s equal parts adorable and nightmare fuel.

In Japan, mentaiko is traditionally paired with white rice, eaten in sushi, or on ochazuke. In the U.S., it is most recognizable at dim sum parlors, where it often garnishes trays of shu mai like a rooster’s fiery crest. Or maybe you’ve seen it in a Studio Ghibli anime, dolloped over bowls of rice with dramatic wisps of steam. You’re almost guaranteed to find some rendition of it in Korean and Japanese bakeries, where it’s slathered onto smoky yakitori, plopped atop hot dogs, or encased in fluffy milk buns. Much of this cross-cultural fare mirrors the creations you’ll find in wafu cafes across East Asia.

Although Asian supermarket chains like Mitsuwa Marketplace and H Mart have been stocking mentaiko and tarako (the unspiced version of cured cod roe) since the mid-1990s, it was bought almost exclusively by Japanese and Korean home cooks. Its gradual, more widespread adoption was kicked off by the ramen boom of the early 2000s. “Ever since ramen became more mainstream in the U.S., I started seeing more mentaiko on restaurant menus,” says Naoko Takei Moore, the Los Angeles-based author of Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking and the owner of Toiro Kitchen. She adds that its popularity on menus seems to have grown over the last five years in particular.

In the food media cinematic universe, mentaiko first made the rounds over a decade ago. In 2011, Niki Nakayama put it on the menu at n/naka, her two-Michelin-star Los Angeles restaurant, catapulting it to almost overnight fame. A couple of years later, the mentaiko udon served at Mott Street in Chicago inspired home cooks to make their own version of the kimchi-flecked dish, which was reminiscent of wafu pasta. That dish has its own lengthy history: It is believed to have first been concocted in the 1960s at a Shibuya haunt called Kabé No Ana (literally “hole in the wall”) when an orchestra musician brought back caviar from Europe; mentaiko was subsequently used as an accessible alternative to caviar.

Mentaiko has since shown up at a burgeoning number of Japanese-Italian spots across the country. At Nonono in New York City, chef Daichi Tokuda now serves mentaiko udon with slabs of pork belly and nuggets of enoki mushrooms suspended in a creamsicle-orange sauce, finished with perilla leaves. At Kimika, chef Christine Lau slings crispy German butterball potatoes with mentaiko mayo. In Washington, D.C., chef Katsuya Fukushima of Tonari showers Detroit-style pizza with corn and mentaiko, and brick cheese. And it’s still on the menu at n/naka, where Nakayama includes it in her modern take on kaiseki, a traditional multicourse Japanese dinner. Her mentaiko spaghettini, prepared with shaved black truffle and abalone, is served as the shiizakana, or larger course, and even has multiple Reddit threads dedicated to it.

“Actually, using mentaiko to create a carbonara-like sauce has always been one of those dishes that really is symbolic of what Japanese interpretations of pasta are like,” Nakayama says. “I wanted to create a menu that was unique to my experience and started to think of the depth of flavor that squid ink has. I didn’t think that people would gravitate towards the dish the way they have, and it’s now on our menu all the time.”

Mentaiko’s popularity in the dining scene is matched by its increasing visibility in grocery aisles and chain restaurants: it’s now being co-opted by virtually every Japanese food brand eager to cash in on mentaiko mania. Kewpie, the brand synonymous with Japanese mayonnaise in the U.S., sells a mentaiko version in its signature squeezable bottles, and Chester Cheetah can be seen on hot-pink bags of Mentaiko Cheese Cheetos, flaunting mentaiko-speckled fingers (paws?). In 2020, McDonald’s Singapore sold a limited-edition salmon mentaiko burger, slicked with glossy, salmon-colored aioli. Last month, Domino’s Singapore introduced limited edition prawn pizza, cross-hatched with mentaiko mayo. You can even find mentaiko Pringles in parts of Asia.

Andrea Xu, the CEO of Umamicart, a popular Asian grocery delivery service, has noted an increased demand for mentaiko and its avatars over the past year. “Mentaiko has always been available in brick-and-mortar Japanese markets and is still a rare find in most brand-name supermarkets,” says Xu. “But over the past year, it’s been exciting to see home cooks purchase more mentaiko from us than ever before.”

Along with fresh, frozen, jarred, and tubed mentaiko, Asian specialty stores sell mentaiko-flavored instant spaghetti sauce, sushi rolls, and mentaiko-stuffed onigiri, a staple Japanese breakfast. “I can totally see more Americans starting to include it in their shopping lists,” says Takei Moore, who remembers receiving boxes of neatly stacked mentaiko as souvenirs from Fukuoka when she was growing up in Japan. Along with mentaiko-filled onigiri, she also enjoys the cured roe with steamed yamaimo (mountain yam).

For her part, Nakayama believes that it’s possible that mentaiko will receive the mainstream popularity of tahini or fish sauce “because it’s not overwhelmingly fishy and it’s super versatile. A lot of people mistake it for grated cheese at our restaurants.”

That said, mentaiko’s potential appeal to home cooks is a bit complicated. The hesitation around handling raw fish products, as well as their shorter shelf life, might explain why mentaiko hasn’t quite taken off the way Asian-origin ingredients like chili oil, wasabi, gochujang, and furikake have in the U.S.

Another big, if obvious, factor is mentaiko’s somatic form — the very idea of slicing into a sac is still foreign to even adventurous home cooks in the West. Moreover, its proximity to caviar, its high-brow sturgeon counterpart, invites assumptions that it will be similarly rarefied. But where caviar is typically used as a garnish, mentaiko is a workhorse; its mutable traits allow it to do everything a conserva can. Its more humble nature is also reflected in its price tag: In the U.S., 4.5 ounces of Osetra caviar, a popular variety, costs an average of $308, while the same amount of mentaiko costs around $11.49.

“Caviar is in a completely different league,” says Takei Moore. “It’s been a symbol of luxury and a delicacy in the West for centuries, so you can’t compare it with mentaiko.” What chefs like she and Nakayama are saying is, it’s mentaiko’s everyman appeal, coupled with its ability to animate even the most insipid meals — not its likeness to caviar — that make it worth trying.

It’s more accurate to compare mentaiko to bottarga, especially the kind made from cod roe. Bottarga, microplaned into tangerine-colored dust, is an eidetic image of mentaiko, and packs the same fresh seafood flavor. But value-wise, mentaiko still emerges victorious against its Sardinian doppelganger, which costs about $40 a pound.

If you still need convincing to cook with mentaiko, its uses are limited only by your imagination. If you’re looking for a good, familiar place to start, try pasta: mentaiko carbonara is a predestined communion between the eggs of the land and the sea, reminiscent of spaghetti alla bottarga. Or, if you’re holding onto the last summer tomatoes like we are, grate ripe ones into a butter sauce with mentaiko for a sublime, tangy-rich sauce that’s so comforting it can only be described as the esculent counterpart of a onesie blanket (if you say you haven’t considered buying one at some point, you’re lying). Or, keep it simple with an emulsion of butter and soy sauce, with optional but highly encouraged fistfuls of parmesan.

You could also consider putting mentaiko on top of your food. Think spreadable cheese like ricotta or mascarpone smeared on toast, savory crepes, latkes, or corn fritters with a salty mentaiko topping. Mix a tablespoon of mentaiko into cream cheese for a crab dip-esque experience, and eat it with everything from crudites to potato chips. For a power lunch, dollop a teaspoon of mentaiko over avocado toast with wisps of shredded nori.

It can also do wonders for a salad. Mentaiko whisked into Caesar dressing makes a stellar stand-in for anchovies, and a few tablespoons give Japanese potato salad a one-two punch, combining jammy yolks with the briny lusciousness of roe. You probably already have all the ingredients on hand, except the mentaiko. The combination of the pops of roe, punchy scallions, and sweet Kewpie mayonnaise will make this an instant classic at your next barbecue.

All of that said, mentaiko is also perfect on its own. Although Nakayama likes to fold it into scrambled eggs and hearty stews, her favorite way to enjoy mentaiko is with a sidecar of white rice; the heat of the rice gives the mentaiko an almost custardy texture. “There are endless ways to utilize mentaiko,” Nakayama says. “A lot of Japanese people enjoy mixing it with mayonnaise, which is a great place to start.”

If you’re looking to upgrade your party game, diversify your pantry, or add another harbinger of umami to your kitchen, let mentaiko take the wheel. And in case you’re now wondering which kind of mentaiko you should buy, well, until America’s McMentaiko moment is in full swing, the answer is… whatever you can get your hands on. Like anchovies (or anchovy paste), each kind is great. Whether it’s frozen, fresh, tubed, or jarred, a little goes a long way.

Mix it into a dip, paired with dry white wine, and hear even the staunchest fishy-food detractors say, “What is that? It’s delicious!” But whether you want to disclose your secret ingredient is entirely up to you.

Mehr Singh is a food and culture reporter based in New York. Her work appears in Bon Appétit, Food52, MR Magazine, and other publications.


https://www.eater.com/23363532/mentaiko-japanese-salted-cod-roe-american-restaurants-cooking

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