An easy and delicious wafu pasta (Japanese fusion), Mentaiko pasta is made with preserved spicy cod/ pollock roe, milk, cream, and spaghetti noodles.
One of the unique fusion (Japanese mix with Western) food that I love is Wafu Pasta (和風パスタ) – Japanese style pasta. Today I will share with you a very popular and easy Wafu Pasta recipe, Mentaiko Pasta (明太子パスタ).
What is Mentaiko?
Mentaiko (明太子) or Karashi Mentaiko (辛子明太子) is spicy pollock/cod roe, which originates from Korea (Korean version is myeongnan-jeot). Toshio Kawahara, who was born in Busan, Korea during the Japanese occupation, founded the oldest mentaiko company in Japan called “Aji no Mentaiko Fukuya” after World War II. He made slight modifications to myeongnan-jeot to adapt to Japanese tastes and introduced it to Japan as Karashi mentaiko.
Mentaiko is often enjoyed as a side dish to accompany steamed rice (just like pickled vegetables), as a topping for Ochazuke and ramen, or used as a filling inside of Onigiri (rice balls). It has a distinct salty taste and texture which adds a lot of flavor to plain food. During my recent visit to Japan, I had mentaiko with kombu from Hirosho (博多明太子ひろしょう) and it was delicious with rice.
There are many different variations of flavors and colors for mentaiko. They range from just plain salted to yuzu, kombu, and spicy chili flavors. Mentaiko is a specialty that originated from Hakata (ward of Fukuoka City) and it is very popular throughout Japan.
Quick & Easy Mentaiko Pasta
It might seem like an odd pairing, but the salty and spicy mentaiko goes really well in a buttery creamy sauce. The roe of pollock/cod is much smaller, refined, and softer than tobiko (flying fish roe), which is often used for sushi. If you close your eyes while eating, you probably won’t notice you’re eating tiny pollock/cod roe from the texture. However, its flavor definitely packs a punch.
The reason why this recipe is quick and easy to prepare is that you don’t need to cook mentaiko and cream sauce. Simply prepare the cream sauce while boiling pasta, and toss and coat the mentaiko mixture with cooked pasta and you’re done! The hot cooked pasta will heat up the mentaiko cream sauce.
This sauce is not very “saucy”, but if you prefer you can double the amount of the sauce and pollock/cod roe. Don’t increase just creamy sauce (milk + heavy cream) because the balance between spicy/salty roe and the creamy sauce will be off.
Top the pasta with strips of nori seaweed and julienned shiso leaves (perilla) to give it a nice distinct aroma and flavor, just like how julienned basil provides the final touch for some Italian pasta dishes.
Mentaiko: I know mentaiko is not easy to find unless your nearest Japanese grocery stores carry it. Unfortunately, the only substitute that would work is tarako (たらこ), the cod/pollock roe that’s not prepared with chili (so your children can enjoy it too). Again, this is something you should be able to find in most Japanese grocery stores, but not a common ingredient to find elsewhere.
I apologize that there is no good substitute, but I still wanted to share this recipe and introduce a popular and easy Japanese-style pasta (wafu pasta) with you today.
Milk & Heavy Whipping Cream: You can use “Half and Half” instead of mixing milk and heavy whipping cream. If you want to keep the pasta healthier/lighter, skip heavy cream and use whole milk (or reduced-fat milk) only. If you like more creamy pasta, you can use heavy cream only. The result of “creaminess” will vary depending on the ratio of milk and cream.
Butter: If you like to keep it healthier/lighter, you can replace the butter with extra virgin olive oil.
Shiso Leaves (perilla leaves): This Japanese herb goes really well with this pasta. I highly recommend to include if you can find it, but it’s fine to skip it if you can’t find it locally. Don’t use basil or other types of herbs for this recipe as they don’t give the same effect.
Instant Mentaiko Pasta Sauce
In your Japanese grocery stores, you might find this popular Mentaiko Pasta “instant” spaghetti sauce. I was addicted to this when I was in college as all you need was to boil pasta and mix it with the sauce.
However, I have to tell you it’s so easy to make homemade mentaiko pasta if you can get mentaiko. So look for mentaiko or spicy cod/pollock roe in the nearest Japanese supermarket and try this recipe!
If you like udon noodles, try this Mentaiko Udon!
Variation to Classic Mentaiko Pasta
If you want a more creamy and savory version, try my Mentaiko Udon!
Classic Mentaiko Pasta
- 2 Tbsp kosher salt (Diamond Crystal; use half for table salt) (for boiling pasta)
- 8 oz spaghetti (4 oz or 113 g per person)
- 2 sacks spicy salted pollock roe or cod roe (karashi mentaiko) (the mentaiko I use has no food coloring, so my finished dish looks less pink/orange than other versions; use about one mentaiko sac (1 oz, 30 g) per serving)
- 2 Tbsp whole milk
- 2 Tbsp heavy (whipping) cream (36% or more milkfat)
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter (melted)
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- freshly ground black pepper
- Gather all the ingredients.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Once boiling, add 2 Tbsp kosher salt and cook the spaghetti until al dente, about 10 minutes (check the package instructions as well).
- In a large bowl, combine 2 Tbsp milk, 2 Tbsp heavy whipping cream, 2 Tbsp unsalted butter, and 1 Tbsp soy sauce. Don't worry if the butter becomes solidify. Hot spaghetti will melt the butter again.
- Add freshly ground black pepper and stir to combine.
- Cut each roe sac in half and squeeze out the roe from the sac with hands or knife.
- Add the roe to the bowl and mix well. Discard the membrane.
- When the spaghetti is done, drain and transfer to the large bowl with the sauce.
- Toss to combine until the butter is melted and the sauce is evenly distributed. Taste and adjust with black pepper and kosher salt.
- Serve immediately, garnished with shredded nori. If you can find shiso leaves in a Japanese grocery store, roll them up and cut it into thin strips and garnish. Shiso is a wonderful addition to this dish.
- Unfortunately, you can't keep the leftovers. If you reheat mentaiko, the fish eggs will be cooked/overcooked.