Ikura Don: The Rice Bowl That Makes Every Night Caviar Night

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

There's nothing wrong with treating yourself. When I do, it's almost always with seafood. If it's lobster night, that means two whole lobsters for me, and then I'll pick clean the bodies that anyone else is unwilling to touch. A seafood salad is nothing less than a rococo mountain of tender ocean jewels. I've brought home whole trays of creamy sea urchin and shucked a hundred oysters in one sitting. Just the other night, I showed a tiny bit of restraint, deciding to hold off on a half pound of bay scallops and just eat the three whole fish I'd bought for dinner, instead.

I get this marine-based hedonism from my mom. Once, when I was in high school, she got extremely sick, and after many tests, the doctors finally identified the culprit: the parasite known as giardia. They asked her if she'd been drinking any untreated water, say, from a lake or stream in the backcountry. No, she said; she hadn't been outside New York City in many months. They were stumped. Then she offered up one small detail: She'd been eating a pound of raw sweet shrimp every day for the past two months, because they were so irresistibly good. Mystery solved.

There are limits, though—like cost, if nothing else. Not every night can be caviar night. Or can it? I've been turning this question over in my head recently as I've meditated on, and eaten my fair share of, ikura don, the Japanese rice bowl studded with plump beads of salmon roe. It takes advantage of the thing that all rice bowls offer—an expanse of affordable rice—to stretch what is really a relatively small amount of a pricey ingredient. The rice is especially well matched to this ingredient, since salmon roe is salty enough to warrant some attenuation.

The thing is, this is all more of an observation than a recipe, because ikura don is one of the easiest dishes imaginable. Cook short-grain rice. Top with salmon roe. Serve.

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Okay, it's a tiny bit more complicated than that, but just a tiny bit. The salmon roe in this dish should be prepared the Japanese way, which involves marinating fresh, uncured salmon roe in soy sauce, usually with mirin and/or sake and sometimes with dashi. You may be able to find it premade in Japanese grocery stores, but otherwise, your options are limited (assuming you're not in Japan). You can try to procure an uncured roe sac and do the process from scratch yourself, but this is unrealistic for most people.

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My solution is a bit of a hack: Buy some basic salt-cured salmon roe from a good fishmonger, then marinate it briefly with soy sauce, mirin or sake, and some dashi. (In this application, even instant dashi is fine.) The idea is just to get some of those flavors into the roe, and it works surprisingly well.

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After that, drain the roe, heap it on some freshly cooked rice that's cooled off just a little, and garnish with some wasabi and nori. A shiso leaf never hurt anything, either. For that matter, neither did some fat slices of salmon sashimi. Or a few lobes of sea urchin. Or some sweet chunks of crabmeat. Or all of the above. Treat yourself—that's what I say!