Mentaiko Pasta (明太子パスタ)
Despite its relatively short history, Mentaiko Pasta has become a classic home-cooked meal in Japan because of its favorable taste to effort ratio. It’s typically prepared by tossing boiled spaghetti with mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and cream. Although I’ve posted a cream-based recipe in the past, I personally prefer making this modern Japanese classic without adding cream.
My method involves making a mixture of mentaiko and olive oil and then emulsifying this with butter and the starchy boiling liquid from the pasta. This creates a rich, velvety sauce with the full flavor of the mentaiko and olive oil that doesn’t get cloying or heavy.
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Why This Recipe Works?
- Cream mutes the flavor and spiciness of the mentaiko. By omitting it and making the sauce with mentaiko, olive oil, and starchy pasta water, you get a clean, briny sauce highlighting the simple ingredients’ flavors.
- Since the boiling liquid from the pasta is a vital component of the sauce, it is essential to boil the spaghetti in as little water as possible to make it nice and starchy; otherwise, the sauce will end up watery.
- A pat of butter not only helps to emulsify the liquids and oils to make the sauce, but it also adds just a hint of creaminess without making it heavy or cloying.
- Black pepper adds a citrusy zing that helps mask any fishiness from the cod roe.
Ingredients for Mentaiko Pasta
- Mentaiko – Mentaiko (明太子) is variously translated as pollock roe or cod roe. The fish it comes from is called the “Alaskan Pollack” in English, but this fish is technically a member of the genus Gadus (cod), not Pollachius (pollock), which is why it’s translated both ways. The eggs are very small and do not pop like tobiko or masago. Mentaiko can usually be found frozen at Japanese and Korean grocery stores and typically come in the roe sack, but I’ve also seen it removed from the sack and packed in jars, making it easier to use.
- Olive oil – Use a creamy, fruity olive oil here that is not too spicy or astringent. Although I’m sure there are exceptions, the more yellow an olive oil is, the creamier it tends to be, while greener olive oils tend to be spicier. This is because greener olive oils are made from younger olives, which contain more chlorophyll.
- Pasta – Mentaiko Pasta is traditionally made with spaghetti (I used one that’s 1.9mm in diameter), but you could make this with any pasta. When choosing spaghetti, I usually like to look for one with a rough surface (as opposed to the super-smooth ones). This not only releases more starch into the boiling liquid, but the more irregular surface also helps the sauce to adhere to the pasta better.
- Butter – Butter contains casein which acts as an emulsifier. This allows the pasta water and olive oil to mix into a creamy sauce. The butter also adds a nice flavor to the sauce without making it heavy or cloying. Since mentaiko can be pretty salty, I recommend using unsalted butter. Also, I used cultured butter for this, which has had the cream fermented before it’s churned. This increases the amount of diacetyl in the butter, which is responsible for giving butter its taste.
- Black Pepper – Since mentaiko is already spicy, it may seem odd to add black pepper as well, but in this case, it’s added for fragrance rather than heat. Freshly cracked black pepper has a citrusy aroma that can help mask any fishiness from the cod roe.
How to Make Mentaiko Pasta
Making Mentaiko Pasta involves three basic steps.
First, you need to make the sauce by removing the cod roe from the roe sac and whisking it together with olive oil and black pepper.
Then you boil the pasta in a small amount of salted water until it’s fully cooked.
Finally, the pasta is added to the bowl with the mentaiko sauce and tossed together with the butter until everything is well combined. The key here is to transfer the spaghetti directly from the pot into the sauce. This ensures some of the starchy boiling liquid makes it over into the sauce. Then you’ll want to ladle some of the water into the pasta as you toss it to keep the noodles nice and lubricated.
Other Japanese Pasta Recipes
Mentaiko Pasta (明太子パスタ) is a Japanese pasta dish made by tossing spaghetti together with a sauce made using spicy cod roe (mentaiko). It was created in the 1960s at a restaurant in Shibuya called Kabé No Ana, which literally means “hole in the wall.” According to the creation story, a regular patron brought the chef a jar of caviar after a trip and asked him to prepare something with it. The pasta the chef came up with was so delicious that he wanted to add it to the menu, but caviar was not available in Japan at the time, so he turned to mentaiko instead. Today, mentaiko spaghetti is one of the most popular types of Japanese-style pasta, and there are even instant sauce packets that can be tossed with boiled noodles. Making it from scratch is easy, though, and once you do it, you won’t want to go back to the packs.
The word mentaiko (明太子) is a mashup of the Korean name for the fish myeongtae (명태) with the Japanese word ko (子), which means “child.” It’s typically used to refer to cod roe cured in a spicy brine, similar to how myeongnanjeot is prepared in Korea. Tarako (鱈子) literally means “cod roe” and can refer to any roe coming from cod, but it is most commonly used to describe brined cod roe that is not spicy.
Technically, it is cod roe as the fish it comes from, suketoudara (スケトウダラ), which is in the genus Gadus (cod). However, the common English name for the fish is “Alaska Pollock,” which is where the confusion comes from as pollock is usually used to refer to fish in the genus Pollachius.
Both mentaiko and pasta are three-syllable words and are pronounced as follows in Japanese:
men like mentor
ta like tarp
i like even
ko like corner
pa like pond
su like soup
ta like tarp
I haven’t found a good alternative to mentaiko for this. Ikura is too big, and roe like tobiko (flying fish roe), masago(capelin roe), and kazunoko (herring roe) have a poppy texture that doesn’t work great for this. Bottarga made from mullet roe will work if it has not been dried, but you will need to change the ratio of ingredients if you use dried and grated bottarga.
- 100 grams mentaiko
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 200 grams spaghetti
- 1 tablespoon cultured unsalted butter
- Nori (for garnish)
- Bring a pot with about 5 cups of water to a boil.
- Cut the roe sacs of mentaiko in half, and then use your fingers or chopsticks to squeeze out the roe from the sac into a large bowl. Add the olive oil and black pepper and whisk the mixture together.
- Add a 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the boiling water, and then add the spaghetti. Use tongs to submerge the pasta as quickly as possible without breaking it (this will take a little while). Boil the pasta according to the package directions.
- When the pasta is cooked, transfer it directly from the pot into the bowl with the mentai sauce. Add the butter, and then use tongs to toss the pasta together. Use a ladle to add some of the starchy pasta water to the bowl to create a rich sauce.
- Garnish the Mentaiko Pasta with nori and serve immediately.