Mentaiko is generally more popular than tarako. Just as how various types of marinated fried chicken can be more well received than plain fried chicken, mentaiko offers more flavour profile options for its patrons. Over time, as more and more people have started referring to cod roe as ‘mentaiko’ by default, it explains why most Singaporeans don’t even know what ‘tarako’ is.

Another popular type of mentaiko is ‘karashi mentaiko’. For Singaporeans who don’t understand Japanese, the meaning of ‘karashi’ is often obvious from the red packaging with chilli cartoons drawn all over. Karashi mentaiko refers to mentaiko that is seasoned with red chilli pepper sauce, and ‘karashi’ literally translates to ‘spicy’.

Mimicking the taste of the sea, cod roe is salty, savoury, rich, and thick. It isn’t overwhelming, unlike uni (sea urchin) which one can quickly grow sick of eating. Because this delicacy packs a salty punch, it is always eaten in small amounts. You will never see someone chewing on a chunk of mentaiko or tarako by itself, which would be like chugging Marmite on its own. Good cod roe is typically seasoned very simply to allow its original flavour to shine.

How is it made?

A surprisingly large amount of processing work is done by hand. After cleaning the selected cod roe, a concoction of spices and seasonings not limited to chilli powder, spicy mustard, sesame, black pepper, and more, is added. It is then left to soak in a marinade. Skilled ‘mentaiko technicians’ are even able to almost perfectly gauge the weight of mentaiko by holding it in their hands.

Soaking the mentaiko longer allows the flavours to penetrate the mentaiko better. The finished product is then checked by ‘flavour guards’ for quality and consistency. The last thing you want is to purchase a box of mentaiko, only to have every bite taste different.

How do you eat it?

Mentaiko goes well with rice alone, but it also complements alcohol, and is a great topping for ramen, pasta, potato salad, and baguette. It’s no surprise then that mentaiko has been so easily incorporated into Singapore’s carbohydrate-heavy food scene.

A quick glance at hipster cafe menus in Singapore shows this: mentaiko dishes such as mentaiko pasta, mentaiko fries, mentaiko prawns—mentaiko everything. Who knows, the next sensation could be mentaiko roti prata, mentaiko biryani, or even mentaiko chicken rice.

Just how popular is mentaiko in Japan?

Ask any Japanese which city is most renowned for mentaiko and you are bound to hear a collective chime about Fukuoka, a city located in Kyushu. 

After touching down at Fukuoka airport, mentaiko souvenirs can be easily found everywhere. In airport stores alone, you’ll find mentaiko crackers, mentaiko mayonnaise, as well as countless other mentaiko-flavoured snacks on display at tax-free prices.

After alighting at Hakata station, which is the largest railway station on Kyushu island, mentaiko products take up an entire section of the underground Takashimaya-like store. Raw mentaiko is also available, and mentaiko lovers will struggle to keep calm.

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