Pasta, Japanese-style? Why not!
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Pasta, Japanese-style. Super popular in Japan since the 1980s, Wafu pasta is something everyone should try. The ingredients are bold, not for the faint-hearted, and the flavours pack-a-punch. I reminisce over my first experience with Wafu pasta, explain what it is, and suggest some delicious recipes to have a go at making it yourself.
My daughter just made tuna pasta for lunch. It reminded me of when I lived in Tokyo and often ate tuna pasta over my lunch break. It was so good – tomato sauce with black olives, capers and a mound of freshly grated parmesan (yes, you may scoff at the thought of having cheese with fish, but I love it!).
However, this was not my favourite pasta dish in Japan – that honour goes to "Mentaiko Pasta" (明太子パスタ). Just the thought of a creamy bowl of this flavour bomb makes my mouth water!
I thank my Japanese work friends for convincing me to try something that I considered at the time to be very strange. When they explained what it was, I recall being very sceptical. I am never afraid to try new foods, so, of course, I gave it a go. If I didn't like it, I could at least entertain my Japanese buddies with my funny "gaijin" reaction.
(Aside: a gaijin is a foreigner, or anyone that is not of Japanese descent, really. The Japanese love to have a laugh at the expense of their colleagues – who was I to deprive them of this possible scenario!)
Luckily for me (though maybe not getting the desired reaction for my friends), I found Mentaiko Pasta to be an eye-opener to Japanese fusion pasta. It soon became a firm favourite at lunchtime.
"Mentaiko" (明太子) is Japanese for spicy Alaskan pollock/cod roe. Don't screw up your face and say, "Ewwwww!" It is made by curing the roe sacs, marinating them in various seasonings and ground chilli, and salmon-orange in colour. For food nerds (like me), the non-spicy version is known as "tarako" (鱈子).
Mentaiko can be typically used on its own as a side to rice and pickles, in Japanese rice balls (おにぎり) or even more bizarrely, as a pizza topping.
Mentaiko Pasta falls under the category of Wafu pasta (和風パスタ), a fusion of Japanese ingredients and Italian cooking methods. The Japanese really are masters when it comes to fusion cuisine, and Mentaiko Pasta is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of this. I think it really shines in this particular pasta dish. The umami flavour achieved in the pasta sauce with very few ingredients can't be matched.
Romantically, I'd like to imagine that it came about from some genius Japanese chef that picked up the idea while visiting Italy. Italy has an amazing delicacy called "bottarga" – salt-cured mullet or tuna roe. Harder in consistency than mentaiko, it can be added to sauces or scattered over dishes to enhance flavour and complexity. Wonderful stuff! I've had it grated over a plate of Pasta Vongole. It added the savoury kick of parmesan and elevated the pasta to another level…but back to mentaiko!
The actual origin of Mentaiko Pasta is also charming. After World War II, pasta became hugely popular in Japan thanks to the Americans. It was so loved that many restaurants started adding simple pasta dishes, such as Spaghetti Bolognaise, to their menus.
One of these restaurants was Kabe No Ana in Tokyo. In the mid-1960s, a regular had just returned from a tour of Europe with a souvenir of caviar. Not knowing what to do with it, he took it to the restaurant, where the chef proceeded to make a delicious pasta dish. Wanting to add his new discovery to the menu, the chef found that he couldn't source caviar in Japan at the time. On hand, though, was mentaiko. Using this, he was able to create a Japanese version of the now much-loved Wafu pasta.
It's very simple to make...that is if you can access mentaiko! There are quite a few different versions, but I like the creamy kind the best. Just One Cookbook's "Classic Mentaiko Pasta" comes close to the one I remember eating in Tokyo.
If you love Japanese flavours and pasta, I really encourage you to try making Wafu pasta. Ingredients are few, and the techniques are uncomplicated. I completely get it that my favourite Mentaiko Pasta may not be to everyone's taste, so I suggest you give "Butter Shoyu Pasta " a try. If you haven't tried the combination of butter and soy sauce together, well, you are in for a taste sensation! The ingredients are readily available, and the flavours are familiar enough not to put you off.
When I made this, I added a few shakes of "Shichimi Togarashi" (Japanese chilli spice) to the pasta and stirred it through prior to scattering over the parsley. Ground chilli is a perfect substitute.
If you love the Italian "Pasta Vongole" (clam pasta), you may like to try the Japanese version, "Japanese-style Vongole".
I thank my daughter for making tuna pasta today. The wonderful memories of many fantastic food experiences have flooded my mind and made my tummy rumble. I seriously miss Mentaiko Pasta, and my next visit to Japan will definitely include a bowl.
Photo credit: Marc Matsumoto: norecipes.com