Diner’s dictionary: Cured fish roe adds umami to pasta

Lana restaurant's Spaghetti Puttanesca. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Bottarga (boh-TAHR-gah)

Bottarga is sometimes referred to as “poor man’s caviar,” a term which is fiscally confounding in the U.S., where the salted, pressed and dried fish roe sells for upward of $100 a pound.

But in its native Sardinia, bottarga is so affordable that it figures into a pasta dish of olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes that’s considered the region’s macaroni-and-cheese. In southern Italy, most everyone keeps a jar of the stuff in their refrigerator. And its most vocal stateside fans think eaters here should follow suit.

“Anyone who’s into full-flavored, slightly strange-to-the-average-American-palate things like anchovies or wild mushrooms will probably like it,” Ari Weinzweig of the food emporium Zingerman’s wrote in a lengthy online paean to the delicacy. “To me, it’s got a really compelling flavor: Earthy, slightly salty — and someone will probably say sexy, so I’ll beat them to it by saying it myself.”

To make bottarga, producers carefully extract the fish’s roe pouch: Mullet and tuna are the most common candidates for the bottarga treatment, but chefs have also toyed with eggs from mahi-mahi, red snapper and shad. The pouch is then hand-massaged, to release air bubbles, dried and cured in sea salt. The resulting bottarga is then sliced into blocks and coated in beeswax.

In Italy, Tunisia, Greece and other nations along the bottarga belt, cured roe is typically sold in log form, so home cooks can grate or slice it to their own specifications. But here it’s frequently found pre-grated and jarred, which is ideal for pasta, but less suitable for serving atop a cracker in caviar fashion, regardless of the preparer’s income.

Lana (Spaghetti puttanesca, $14/$17)

Bottarga has shown up aboard baked oysters at The Ordinary and Husk, and The ‘Wich Doctor during shad roe season makes its own bottarga to use as a pizza topping.

In 2007, Florida’s Anna Maria Fish Company became the first U.S. outfit to produce bottarga. It sells its cured mullet roe for about $10 an ounce at annamariafishcompany.com. Imported bottarga also is available online for a similar price. “A little goes a long way,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently quoted Viktorija Todorovska, author of “The Sardinian Cookbook: The Cooking and Culture of a Mediterranean Island,” as saying.