Ikura Chronicles: Salmon Caviar

Ikura, or marinated salmon roe, is a popular item in Japanese cuisine.  The salmon eggs are most commonly marinated in a soy sauce and sake mixture and served uncooked.  Frequently served as nigiri, they are also a common addition to rice dishes like chirashi or donburis.

As a young boy fishing with my father, we would often use a jar of prepared salmon eggs for fishing.  They would have names like "Balls O Fire" but were essentially the same thing as ikura:  salmon eggs, albeit lower quality, that had been processed to be used as bait.  It took quite some time until I was older and had more experience with Japanese cuisine to truly appreciate the roe as a delicacy and not just "for the fishes."

The name ikura is actually a borrowed word from the Russian word "ikra," which means caviar.  Given how the best caviar often originates from the Russian area, the name seems appropriate.  Whatever the name, marinated salmon eggs are a common delicacy in a wide variety of countries throughout Europe, Asia, and beyond.

In addition to being available in Japanese restaurants, ikura is available in Asian supermarkets and also often sold in national supermarkets as salmon caviar.  The true knock though, just as in the restaurants, is the high price that is associated with this delicacy.  Small jars often cost upwards of $80/lb, while the nigiri can cost as much as $8/pair of nigiri.

Fortunately, fresh salmon roe is available and Japanese as well as serious fans have been making home-made recipes of ikura for a long time.  In addition to a much lower cost, you also control the marinade and truly can make a delicacy that is entirely catered to your own taste.

A great blog post by Blue Lotus was a perfect introduction to the process and I used it to base my own preparation: http://blue_moon.typepad.com/blue_lotus/2007/09/post-6.html

The first challenge is where you obtain fresh salmon roe.  Japanese supermarkets will seasonally sell it under the name "nama sujiko."  Also, if you've ever gone fishing for salmon (as I have) or know a fisherman, they will often catch female king salmon that have sacs of salmon roe.  Don't throw them away!

In this unprepared state, the salmon roe are definitely not quite ready for consumption.  They have very little flavor and are also covered by a thin, membranous sac.

Preparation though consists of only a few steps, summarized here:

1) Add the fresh salmon roe to boiling hot water and slowly, but gently, remove all the membranous sac and free the individual eggs.

The sac can be tough to remove, but it tends to float, while the eggs sink.  Your efforts will be rewarded.  It's also normal for the salmon eggs to change to an opaque color during this process.  No worries!

2) After the salmon eggs are free and cleaned, it's time to marinade them.  Two popular marinades exist.  The first is simple sea salt.  A teaspoon or more will cause the salmon eggs to return to their beautiful translucent color.

The other popular marinade is what high-end Japanese restaurants do.  They typically have a soy sauce, sake, and mirin mixture.  The most common ratio I found was 3 parts shoyu (soy sauce) : 1 part sake : 1 part mirin.

3) Refrigerate overnight and drain the excess liquid in the morning.  You can store the prepared salmon eggs in the refrigerator and definitely enjoy the perishable food within a few days.  That's it...you've made home-made ikura!

Overall, for me, this cooking experiment was fun, educational, and rewarding.  I loved learning where the eggs came from and how they were prepared as well as making my own batch.  There is definitely something special when you open your refrigerator and see jars of your home-made ikura.  As a big fan of ikura, of course, the biggest reward was definitely eating them.  (shown below over home-made chirashi :)


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