Korea’s own quality caviarWhile Russian and Iranian beluga and sevruga caviar are known worldwide and considered among the finest anywhere, relatively few people realize Korea has its own premium roe.
Salted cod roe has been regarded as an expensive delicacy for centuries in Korea, although it is relatively unknown outside Asia. Known as myeongranjeot or myeongtae-al, it has been included among the various jeotgal (preserved food) dishes served in traditional full course meals here for generations.
Most Asians believe that Fukuoka, the southern Japanese city that is closest to Korea, is the home of spicy cod roe, or karashi mentaiko in Japanese, but in fact it was a Japanese merchant in Fukuoka who introduced the traditional Korean delicacy to the Japanese in the 1950s and popularized the dish throughout Japan over the following decades.
Thus, two different kinds of cod roe are sold in markets: Korean and Japanese. The Japanese variety is less spicy and has a cleaner appearance; it’s usually sold in pristine gift boxes. Korean roe, on the other hand, is often sold from large vats. The fish eggs are covered with red chili pepper seasonings and taste more fermented than the Japanese variety. The dish is categorized as a preserved sauce in Korean cooking.
Although cod roe can be obtained year round, winter is considered the best time to savor the delicacy because the new harvest appears then. Starting in late September or October, freshly harvested roe is available everywhere, from local fish markets to department stores.
Sellers specializing in myeongranjeot at the Garak Wholesale Fish Market in eastern Seoul extol the virtues of cod roe right now. “They are from Russian cod, the tastiest fish from the cold waters off Russia in the wintertime,” one vendor declared, pointing out the lustrous piles of bright red roe in her store.
Imported Russian cod is gutted in the port city of Sokcho on Korea’s northeastern coast, and the fresh eggs extracted from the fish are quickly marinated with salt and fermented. The cool yet still balmy weather in the late fall makes it an ideal time for fermentation.
Regarding the size of the roe, sellers say that real myeongranjeot aficionadoes may prefer large, mature eggs but the preference is determined by personal taste. More importantly, each pair of thin membranes should be clean, bright pink and tightly packed with roe. The sacs appear bright red because of the spicy red chili pepper seasoning, a traditional Korean method of preparation. But when the sac is cut in half, the pink eggs inside are so light that they are almost transparent.
Good roe smells very fresh, never fishy. Some people prefer smaller eggs, which measure less than 3 inches (about 7 centimeters) and are paler in color. They may taste creamier than larger roe, and usually command a slightly lower market price.
The roe should be refrigerated right after purchase, vendors say, and may be stored for up to one year after being tightly wrapped and frozen. The roe maintains a soft texture despite the freezing process, so the eggs can be defrosted and used easily at any time.
Once thawed, roe should never be frozen again. Left in the refrigerator for a while, roe may develop a white, mucous-like film on the surface and smell pungent; vendors advise washing off the roe and using it in cooking.
The price of myeongranjeot in Korea varies depending on the maturity, condition, size and, of course, taste of the eggs. Compared to the exquisite beluga caviar, cod roe is relatively cheaper and more readily available. The current wholesale price of top-quality roe (a sac about 5 to 6 inches long on average), costs about 25,000 won ($22) per kilogram at fish markets, but the retail price at upscale department stores can start at 50,000 won. Varieties imported from Japan command higher prices.
How does cod roe compare to the other premium roe of the world? The texture of the eggs is fine, but not as creamy as sea urchin roe. The roe is grainy, but not as “sticky” as black caviar, and not as loose as tobikko, or flying fish roe.
Most gourmets say that cod roe is similar to the Italian bottarga. Both are preserved foods made with salt, but most bottarga ― eggs of the tuna or mullet ― found in the market is the dried version, and bottarga caviar is much larger than cod roe.
In Korea, myeongranjeot is usually seasoned with sesame oil and seeds, chopped garlic and chives. This dish can whet every Korean’s appetite, and even a small portion can spice up a simple steamed rice meal.
Japanese chefs have long recognized the versatile nature of the roe. A popular pasta dish is made with cod roe ― known as mentaiko pasta in Japan ― and there are many versions and recipes. Northern Europeans enjoy tarama, a simple pate made with cod roe, fresh cream and lemon juice.
Koreans, however, have not been very inventive with their familiar dish. Cod roe pastas are something of a novelty in Korea, and thus are rare, but a few other dishes are readily available in local restaurants.
Perhaps the most expensive is myeongran jjigae (fermented cod roe stew), which is made with fermented shrimp sauce and tofu in a fish or beef stock base. In Korean-style bars, the less expensive altang (spicy stew made with unfermented cod roe) is a popular dish. And then there is albap (caviar rice), served in a sizzling hot stone bowl at Asian fusion restaurants.
One of the better known spots in town for cod roe pasta is Pietro Spaghetti & Pizza (www.pietro.co.kr), a franchise restaurant imported from Japan. “The pasta is the second best selling dish here,” said the manager of the Nonhyeon-dong branch.
As you prepare to enjoy this Korean specialty, wherever you may try it, be sure to ask if your cod roe comes from this winter’s harvest.
A few summers ago, I traveled to stay with an Italian family in Pesaro, and I took with me a bag of fermented cod roe.
The European guests at my host’s home found my pink pasta made with the roe very unusual, but under the circumstances they felt obliged to sample the dish. There was an awkward hesitation behind polite smiles that lingered for what seemed like an eternity.
After the first mouthful, though, the fearful eyes softened. A German man gave me a deep nod. “It’s good!” he blurted out, while stuffing the pasta into his mouth. Everyone laughed, and satisfaction prevailed. The sound of slurping was loud, and the pink pasta flecked with gim, or strips of black seaweed, vanished within minutes.
The impressed father of the family invited relatives and friends from nearby towns for more pasta. He announced to all that they would be treated to “Pasta Asiana” prepared by “a chef from Coree (Korea).”
I whipped up mountains of the pasta, after which a friend sprinkled on the gim strips, as if that were a sacred ritual of Asia, in front of the awed and applauding guests.
To this day, I fondly remember how a bag of Korean roe left a happy, lasting impression in an Italian home. Here’s what I did:
“Pasta Asiana” with Salted Cod Roe
1 package of spaghetti
1 small bottle of olive oil
4 sacs of cod roe
1 tablespoon of coarse sea salt
4-6 cloves of fresh garlic (peeled and sliced thin)
1/2 sheet of gim (lightly roasted and sliced into thin strips)
In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Add the spaghetti, salt and a few drizzles of olive oil (optional).
Remove the membrane from the roe and set the roe aside in a bowl.
Because the pasta will be cooked again in a pan for a few minutes, it is important to remove it from the water before it turns al dente. Strain and let stand.
In a large skillet, heat a generous amount of olive oil. Over medium heat, saute the garlic. When the garlic is light brown, turn the heat to high and add the roe. Stir quickly with a fork to separate the roe, and when the caviar’s color begins to lighten, add the pasta. Stir vigorously, making sure the pasta is evenly coated with roe.
Transfer immediately to heated plates. Sprinkle the seaweed on top.
Serves 3 or 4.
I recently ran out of my favorite German mustard that I use for sandwiches. Instead of mustard, I spread cod roe and Camembert cheese on toast, and it was great. I went on to make a healthful spread; instead of cream, I used soft tofu, and my family loved it.
Salted Cod Roe Pate
1 tablespoon of cod roe
100 grams (1/3 of a regular pack) of soft tofu
A drop of fresh garlic juice (or one squeeze from a lemon wedge)
A pinch of fine salt
Mix the tofu and roe thoroughly with a fork. Add the garlic juice and salt to taste. If you prefer, substitute lemon or lime juice for the garlic. Spread the pate on toast or crackers.
Covers 3 to 4 slices of toast.
by Ines Cho