One of my all time favorite tasty delicacies is bottarga, or karasumi in Japanese. It’s very popular and well known around the Mediterranean and in Japan, but few Americans know about it. Bottarga is silver mullet roe, cured in its original sac form with sea salt, then dried, waxed and vacuum sealed for preservation. The wax coating prevents further drying and exposure to light. Although it’s been called the poor man’s caviar, it’s highly prized and just as expensive! Each package comes with 2 roe sacs, and in Japan a good quality bottarga can cost as much as $200-300. Taiwanese versions are less expensive, so many Japanese tourists who visit Taiwan come back with a suitcase full of bottarga.
Here are 2 packages that I got from Japan:
These are both high quality Japanese bottarga. Notice how one is long and flat, and the other is short and plump. They differ not only in shape and size, but also how dry/moist they are depending on how much they are salt cured.
Bottarga is very popular in Italy, where they usually grate the roe into a simple olive oil pasta dish. Last month I took the long flat bottarga over to my trusted Italian chef friend Giuseppe’s house to have him cook up a feast. In preparing the bottarga, the outer skin and wax layer need to be carefully removed first.
Giuseppe, as expected, made the most delicious bottarga pasta dish with spaghetti, olive oil, parsley and cherry tomatoes. It paired nicely with a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouilly- Fuissé. Bottarga has a deep salty ocean flavor with a nutty finish that is more delicate and refined than anchovies, and more mellow and rounded than caviar.
By the end of the evening, this white plate was completely clean. The dish was so delicious, that we scraped up every last bit of roe possible with our fingers. Bottarga has such a unique deep robust flavor that it is best enjoyed plain and simple without too many other interfering flavors.
Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills offers a similar bottarga pasta dish, though it was not as delicious as Giuseppe’s. Italian bottarga also tends to be overdried and rock hard, whereas Asian bottarga is more moist and flavorful.
Last year I had the unique opportunity to get my hands on freshly cured bottarga/karasumi from the renowned Kyubei sushi restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. The sushi chef at Kyubei told me that they prepared the bottarga through a 10 step salt curing process over 10 days. It’s a painstakingly long and laborious process to prepare these roe sacs, but it’s very well worth it. Wow….this was the best bottarga I had ever tasted in my life. It was extremely moist and soft, almost juicy, and I could really taste the true essence of the mullet roe. Deep and briny but with a sweet kumquat-like lingering flavor that sent an intense aroma through the back of my palate up to my nose.
I brought this prized piece of heaven back to Los Angeles with me, and took it to the one person who I knew could do it justice. Sushi chef Ken at Kiriko. When he took a bite of the bottarga, he too cried out in joy and couldn’t stop shouting “ume~!!”, which means ‘OMG delicious!’ in Japanese.
He first prepared it in the traditional Japanese way: simply sliced and eaten straight up, and also sandwiched between thinly sliced daikon radish. The fresh crispy bitter daikon complements the salty intense bottarga flavor very well. I love bottarga so much, I prefer eating it straight.
Next he grated the bottarga over fresh seared squid. A wonderful collaboration of ocean flavors! Again, this dish worked because the bottarga was paired with food that has a lot of texture without a strong overpowering flavor.
Finally, Ken made a simple and delicious bottarga pasta dish. He grated the bottarga into a chilled tomato sauce with capellini pasta, and garnished it with shiso leaf ribbons. This was an amazingly refreshing dish! I loved the concept of having a chilled pasta with only the sweetness and acidity of fresh tomatoes to accentuate the bottarga flavor. I don’t think the Kyubei sushi chefs who made this bottarga only a week before, ever imagined their bottarga being used like this. So innovative yet simple and delicious! I loved it.
If you’ve never tried bottarga/karasumi, you MUST! It will open your eyes and taste buds to a whole new world. Thought caviar was good? Well, honestly, I think bottarga has more flavor and depth. Eat it straight, grate it into pasta, shave it onto buttered toast, mix it into mashed potatoes, or slice it over scrambled eggs. However you eat it, you will not be disappointed.
Random trivia: Chinmi (珍味)literally translates to ‘rare taste’, though it means ‘delicacy’, in Japanese. The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of Japan (日本の三大珍味）are uni (sea urchin), karasumi (bottarga), and konowata (sea cucumber guts). The 3 famous chinmi/delicacies of the world(世界の三大珍味）are said to be caviar, foie gras and truffles. Yum to all 6!!