Mentaiko crossing into Western cuisine

Published on
September 14, 2009

Mentaiko — Alaska pollock eggs marinated in chili, sake, kelp and citrus for several hours — is growing in popularity not only in Japan but also in the West.

Originally a Korean dish, mentaiko was introduced to Japan in the 1950s. It is eaten directly or with rice, or is popular in spaghetti or baked into French bread — a mentaiko spaghetti recipe is included in the popular Japanese cookbook, Harumi’s Japanese Cooking. And many U.S. food bloggers have featured mentaiko recently.

Now Japanese seafood companies are looking to expand uses for mentaiko with innovative products and dishes. Tokyo-based fishcake maker Kibun Foods, which participated in the International Boston Seafood Show this year, has introduced mentaiko and mayonnaise on a surimi stick at Japanese convenience stores.

At this year’s International Seafood and Technology Expo in Tokyo, two producers had prominent mentaiko displays, Kanefuku Corp. and Yamaya Communications.

Fukuoka-based Kanefuku Corp. doesn’t sell directly to the United States, but sells to traders who in turn export the product. The company’s focus at the show was to project an image of spice and heat. In its booth, a large fist projected from the top, conveying that mentaiko packs a spicy punch. An egg sack-shaped balloon floated above the booth, while young women dressed in devil costumes offered samples to passersby.

Also, Kanefuku is aggressively sampling in stores and is collaborating with Japanese convenience stores and restaurants to develop new products. But at the show, it was all about image — hot and powerful.

Yamaya claims to be the largest maker of mentaiko in Japan, with annual production of 4,000 metric tons and U.S. exports of 100 metric tons. The company imports container loads of pollock roe directly from Russia to its plant in Fukuoka — the center of mentaiko production in Japan — resulting in lower ingredient costs.

A portion of this is then shipped to its production facility in Los Angeles, where it is made into mentaiko for the North American market. The product is popular at Japanese restaurants and at supermarkets catering to Japanese-Americans, and the company is pushing to break into mainstream diets. The company also exports to Mexico, where spicy foods are popular.

The keys to quality are the best ingredients and long marinating time. For Yamaya’s premium product sold in Japanese department stores, the roe is marinated for 168 hours, while for its standard product it soaks for 72 hours.

At the show, Yamaya displayed spaghetti and bread using mentaiko as an ingredient, hoping to cross the ethnic boundary. The company has also produced an original menu book featuring mentaiko.

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Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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