Could mentaiko spaghetti be the next ramen?
Author Elaine Glusac Photography Ryan Lowry
CHICAGO – While ramen rage continues unabated in cities around the world, another less familiar Japanese noodle dish is beginning to make inroads into restaurant menus outside of its homeland: mentaiko spaghetti, a time-zone toss-up of hot Western pasta piqued by its namesake ingredient, savory pollock roe cured in salt, garlic and chilies.
“It is easy to find many fusion dishes in Japan, but mentaiko spaghetti must be one of the best mashups of Italy and Japan,” says Tokyo-based author Yukari Sakamoto, who runs culinary tours through Food Sake Tokyo. According to Sakamoto, mentaiko spaghetti first appeared in a Tokyo restaurant called Kabe no Ana (literally “hole in the wall”) in the 1950s.
“Mentaiko, and any fish roe, has natural umami, that magical fifth flavor that fills your mouth with savory flavor, which becomes a great sauce for pasta,” she says. “Often it’s just a matter of adding some butter and mentaiko to hot spaghetti. Some of my friends will also add mayonnaise for more fat and flavor.” The resulting dish is rich, creamy and pleasantly pink.
Like ramen before it, mentaiko spaghetti is now making its way across the Pacific, appearing in restaurants around the United States for the first time, often with unique twists. At LA’s Del Rey Kitchen, for example, the dish is bolstered with masago (capelin roe), plus butter sauce and nori for an added burst of umami.
Chef Mark Hellyar spent two years working in Japan prior to opening Momotaro in Chicago last fall. There, he serves a buttery version spiked with rayu sesame oil and fresh ginger juice. “People go out for mentaiko in Japan like people here go out for spaghetti and meatballs,” Hellyar says.
“It’s salty, sweet, fishy and strong, so it’s good to sit on top of something that can carry the flavor, like spaghetti, rice or potatoes,” says Katsuya Fukushima, chef and co-owner of Daikaya, in Washington, D.C., which serves the roe with spaghetti and over rice.
While mentaiko is a comfort food in Japan, stateside tastes remain a hurdle. “We describe it on the menu as ‘spicy cod roe,’ but still that’s a little scary,” Fukushima says. “Maybe we should call it ‘spicy cod caviar.’”
MAUI – Kerry Mekeel rolls up to work at Maui’s Hotel Wailea in a black pickup truck full of vibrant young green coconuts that will soon be split open with a machete and used in cocktails, alongside fresh-pressed juices, local kombucha and housemade syrups. But the unsung star ingredient at her poolside apothecary bar, The Cabanas, just might be her lineup of hydrosols, or floral waters. Made by steam-distilling plants, hydrosols are subtler than perfumey essential oils—though you still need only a few drops to impart a fresh-from-the-garden scent and flavor.
“Bad mixers nauseate you,” Mekeel says. “But you feel clean with hydrosols. The frequency of the plant gives you a natural high. Not only are you getting the scent and flavor of the plant matter, but also the full medicinal value of the plant.” In her Flower Power concoction, Mekeel adds just a few drops of lavender essence to gin, lemon juice, housemade rose syrup and club soda. “This is truly a lady’s drink,” she says. “Everything is so subtle, but you feel the lavender and rose and want to hug yourself.”
Bartenders across the country are distilling their own blooms. One drop of orchid hydrosol resting in an orchid petal amplifies the floral taste of Crème d’Yvette in the Cocchi Americano and of the grappa in the High Violet at Chicago’s Allium. Hibiscus hydrosols show versatility in Asian- and Latin-inspired drinks, from a sparkling sake slushie at San Jose’s RockBar Theater to the hibiscus margarita at Mexican Sugar, in Plano, Texas. In NYC, freshly crushed and distilled rosewater finishes the gin-based Rhubarb and Rose cocktail at The Gander.
Flower Power Yields one drink
• 2 oz. Hendrick’s gin
• 1 oz. housemade rose syrup (recipe below)
• 1 oz. fresh Meyer lemon juice
• 2–4 drops lavender hydrosol
Shake ingredients, top with carbonated filtered water. Garnish with lemon zest.
Rose syrup recipe
Combine equal parts dried heirloom or antique rose petals, organic light brown cane sugar and filtered water. Heat on low to melt sugar and gently extract flavor and color of rose.
NEW ORLEANS – In most museums, eating and drinking are forbidden, no-nos that stern guards rarely miss the chance to wag their fingers at. But at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (or SoFAB) in New Orleans, a city famous for both its food and making its own rules, the aroma of home cooking hints at a more relaxed vibe. In fact, visitors are urged to stroll the halls with a Sazerac in hand or a nibble from whatever’s cooking on-site.
It’s a fitting practice for a 16,000-square-foot homage to the cuisine and culture south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Opened in 2008, the nonprofit museum, which includes the Museum of the American Cocktail, moved to its current home last fall, inside an old market in the burgeoning Central City district.
To preserve the laid-back feel, director and founder Liz Williams says the exhibitions avoid “precious, pretty things” in favor of “everyday things that people cook with,” displaying items donated from the private collections of families, chefs and restaurateurs. “I think that ‘everydayness’ is much more interesting, and it’s really what we’re about,” she says. Organized by region, the artifacts, memorabilia and actual foodstuffs—from humble cans of baked beans to authentic absinthe drips—convey the rich history of eating and drinking in the South.
When the museum reopened last fall, it came with a notable addition: Purloo, an on-site restaurant named for a humble Lowcountry dish that’s made with a pot of rice and whatever else is on hand. Helmed by chef Ryan Hughes, an Ohio native who has worked at some of New Orleans’ top restaurants, the airy space is anchored by an open kitchen and a circa-1851 bar; believed to be the city’s oldest, it moved here after its former home, Bruning’s, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The menu highlights old-school influences and flavors, many of which had been forgotten, like Cape Hatteras clam chowder (made with broth, not cream); lamb burgoo, a spicy stew from Kentucky; and Alabama Lane Cake (pictured below), a dessert mentioned repeatedly in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hughes’ travels in the South provided inspiration. “I would go and talk to farmers and grandmothers and sit on their front porches and talk about what they made and ate in their homes,” he says. “You get so much original information that way. I would take a look at all the Junior League recipe books, because everybody puts their best recipes in there.”
“I’m not trying to modernize it, tweak it, gentrify it, foamify it,” Hughes says. “It’s about showing people that there is amazing food all over the South.”