Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mentaiko Pasta | Cod Roe Pasta

Browsing through Lonely Planet Japan, one line sticks in my head: "...drawing influences from the entire continent, the Japanese have spent millennia taking in and refining the cultural bounties of Asia to produce something distinctly Japanese." Japan's exceptional ability to assimilate, adopt, and ameliorate foreign ideas and creating something uniquely their own while keeping its deep-rooted traditions intact is truly fascinating.

In fact, Japan's geographic scope of cultural influences far extends beyond Asia, as is particularly evident in its well-established culinary arena. From beers to bread and pastry-making, from pasta and pizza to curry, Japan has absorbed influences and mastered techniques from India to Italy and, in turn, successfully created culinary specialties that are as authentic as they are distinctly Japanese. This simple Mentaiko Pasta (明太子パスタ) is a case in point.

Consisting of as few as just a couple of main ingredients and requiring no more than ten minutes to prepare, this popular dish is a classic example of East meets West and a testimony that simplicity rules. Mentaiko, essentially fresh pollack or cod roe that is brined and seasoned (color may range from pink to bright red, and flavor from mild to hot), is the star of this dish, its brininess balanced out by the creaminess of olive/avocado oil and butter, while shisho leaves offer up an interesting herbaceous note that contrasts impeccably with the intense "essence of the sea." Each ingredient practically sings on your tongue as you savor every mouthful!

Simplicity - and fusion - at its best. Now, care for chopsticks... or a fork?

I recently returned home to my penthouse kitchen set to work with mentaiko fresh from the supermarket in Japan. While some home cooks swear by heavy cream and even mayo, I opt for avocado oil (and some butter) for slightly more heart-healthy and - in my opinion - even better results.

To prepare...
400g dried spaghetti
1/2 cup, approx. 80g, mentaiko (I used mild mentaiko)
1/4 cup avocado or olive oil
Black pepper
1 tablespoon butter
Green shiso leaves*
Generous sprinkling of nori strips
Dried chili pepper, finely sliced, for garnish (optional)

*Note: if unavailable, substitute shiso with other aromatics such as Vietnamese mint as in my case, which works wonderfully!

1. Boil pasta al dente according to package directions.

2. Cut each roe sac in half, squeeze and scoop out the roe from each half, discarding the membrane. Add avocado/olive oil and black pepper and gently stir to combine.

3. When the pasta is done, drain thoroughly and add to the bowl with the mentaiko sauce. Add the butter and toss until butter is melted and each strand of pasta gets an even coating of sauce. Serve garnished with nori, shiso, and chili slivers. Bon appetit いただきます!

Adapted from Marc Matsumoto's recipe on No Recipes
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