A few months ago I stopped by the Celebrate Taiwan event that was going on in Grand Central Terminal. They were trying to promote Taiwanese music, culture, and of course the food. I was particularly interested in checking out their dried mullet roe. The Italians have bottarga, the Japanese have Karasumi, but I had heard that the Taiwanese version was the best of the bunch. I was not disappointed. It was smoky, earthy and salty, kind of like a hard cheese that tasted of fish jerky. I posted a picture of it on Facebook at the time, and hadn’t really thought about it again until a couple of weeks ago. My old friend and 9-ball mentor Roger had seen my FB picture, happened to be in Taiwan this month, and lo and behold- a box of mullet roe arrived in my mail last week! Quite the unexpected surprise, especially since I probably haven’t seen Rog in about 15 years! I have the greatest friends. Thanks, Rog!
So tonight I decided to try it out. Here’s what the packaging looks like:
And here’s what the product looks like when sliced:
So what can you do with it? Well, with it’s inherent cheese-like character my first thought was to let funk play with funk, so I put together a riff on a traditional party hors d’oeuvre- bleu cheese crumbles on endive drizzled with white truffled honey and topped with shaved mullet roe:
This was just ok. This particular mullet roe is actually milder than the much saltier and smokier one I had tasted at the Grand Central event, so in retrospect, using a microplane to grate the roe wasn’t the best choice. The shavings were too fine, so it would have taken heaping mounds of it to stand up to the bleu cheese and white truffle. It was still a treat to eat, but didn’t allow the roe to shine.
Next up, a more traditional pairing with some egg on egg action. I made a chawanmushi by preparing a quick dashi, cooling it, mixed in some beaten eggs and then steamed it in a ramekin. Since I wanted bigger roe flavor this time, I abandoned the microplane and switched to a box grater to get some bigger chunks. This was, if I may say so myself, a great success:
Even though my chawanmushi skills leave much to be desired (there were bubble holes on the surface from cooking too quickly I think), the flavor and texture were spot on, and the mullet roe funk was in full effect. With every spoonful, the custard would cleanse and reset the palate so that the bits of roe could follow up, bringing their intense flavor with full force. Pretty awesome.
Then it was time for something more substantial and so I went with another classic preparation- roe on pasta. Typically of course it would be bottarga on pasta, but essentially it’s the same thing with a different name. Granted bottarga might come from a different type of fish than what they use in Taiwan, but flavor-wise they’re aiming for the same dark, salty, smokey, fishy happy zone. Since I knew my palate was probably getting a bit desensitized from the big flavors in the first two dishes, I decided I needed to ramp things up even more for the finale. I ditched the box grater and just used my pairing knife to shave and dice the roe so I could create even bigger chunks. While the spaghetti was boiling, I decided to go even bolder by frying up some capers. When the pasta was cooked, I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled on some truffle salt that Ricky and Kathy gave me as a gift, and tossed it with the capers and mullet roe. With all those good ingredients, I think you can imagine how great this tasted!
There’s a reason pasta and bottarga are such a classic combo. The neutrality of the pasta adds just enough substance and texture to carry the flavor of the roe so that it can linger on your tongue longer with each forkful. In my rendition, the truffle aroma added an extra dizzying dimension while the fried capers brought a floral counterpoint that helped keep the intense flavors from becoming overwhelming, i.e. it made me want to eat more and more instead of just blowing out my palate in a few bites.
Thanks again to Rog for the surprise gift, and for it giving me the inspiration to get my lazy ass back in the kitchen to cook again!