Key Ingredient

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga
Wednesday, December 31, 2003


It's the eve of the new year. For the Japanese household, this means preparation of foods to enjoy for New Year's Day. Many of these dishes hold symbolism for the coming year, making them required eating. Kazunoko, or herring roe, is probably the most unique delicacy. Although it can be enjoyed at sushi bars year-round, in many homes it is indulged in only to celebrate the new year.

The basics: Kazunoko, which translates to "many children," symbolizes fertility and family prosperity. A single herring ovary may contain more than 100,000 eggs, and thus this delicacy came to symbolize the bearing of many offspring. Kazunoko is so rooted in the Japanese New Year celebration that some have linked its high price and scarcity in recent years to the low birthrate in Japan.

It is unclear when consumption of kazunoko began, but it probably dates back hundreds of years. Canada and Alaska are the major exporters today, with Japan being the primary market for the world's supply.

Herring roe is yellowish and harvested from the herring ovary or on kombu -- the seaweed on which the herring lays its eggs. The eggs are tiny and crunchy like tobiko but tend to clump. After harvesting, the eggs are brined, then vacuum-packed and frozen. Some varieties are also marinated ajitsuke-style, with soy sauce, dashi, sake and mirin.

Selecting: Kazunoko is sold in a variety of forms. The somewhat dried form needs to be soaked overnight in water to remove the salt and soften the eggs. Kazunoko kombu should also be rinsed. Ready-to-eat kazunoko is sold in smaller quantities and is softer to the touch.

Storing: Kazunoko may be refrigerated for a couple of weeks or frozen for longer storage.

Use: Kazunoko is best enjoyed as is. It is traditionally enjoyed with shaved katsuo (bonito flakes) and soy sauce. Chili sauce or wasabi can also be used to lend a spicier flavor, or it can be further marinated with soy sauce, dashi, sake and mirin. A miso dipping sauce is also common, or use kazunoko as a topping for nigiri or chirashi sushi.

Where to buy: Kazunoko is available at Asian markets such as Daiei, Marukai and Shirokiya. Prices are pretty steep at about $20 to $25 a pound, but if you're looking to add to the family in the Year of the Monkey (which begins Jan. 22), it's indispensable.

Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga is
a free-lance food writer. Contact her
online through


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