Meet Bottarga: It's Like Parmesan, but From the Sea!

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

It goes by many names.

You might know it as karasumi, served along with sake or beer at some izakaya. You might have heard it called eoran if you ate it along with other anju (Korean drinking food), washed down with a swig of soju. Or maybe you call it something else: the Greeks call it avgotaraho; the French, poutarge. In Croatia, they call it butarga or butarge, which is closer to the name with which most people in the United States are familiar, if they're familiar with it at all: bottarga. Or perhaps you know it from its name in Arabic, butarkah, whence its Italian name derives.

What is Bottarga?

No matter what you call it, the product is essentially the same: Bottarga is the roe sac of a fish, most commonly grey mullet, which is salted, massaged to expel air pockets, then pressed and dried. It's a delicacy the world over, and it dates back to ancient times. Almost anywhere humans fished, it seems, once they learned of this preservation technique, they extracted fish roe sacs and salted and dried them to produce a deeply savory pantry staple that's resistant to rot. Bottarga is wonderful to eat with vegetables, grated over almost any starch or grain, or just on its own, sliced paper thin and seasoned with a little salt or soy sauce, a squeeze of lemon, and a slick of flavorful oil.

Slice bottarga dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt

We'll take a deep dive into the history of bottarga, the different types that can be purchased and where to find them, as well as what to do with it once you've got some on your hands. The bottom line is this: You should buy some. Right now! Stash it in the fridge and pull it out for special occasions; treat it like the luxury it is.

Or you can do what I do: Use it as often as your budget allows. While it may be pricey, you can use bottarga with any number of different foods. Like soy sauce, or fish sauce, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's an easy and quick way to add a savory richness to dishes, whether it's pasta or eggs, and it never feels not special, and it's more affordable than it seems.

A Brief History of Bottarga

Three examples of bottarga. Clockwise from left: bottarga di muggine from l'oro di cabras; bottarga di tonno; bottarga di muggine from Smeralda

Three examples of bottarga. Clockwise from left: mullet bottarga from l'Oro di Cabras; tuna bottarga; mullet bottarga from Smeralda.

The method for preserving the roe sacs of grey mullet is thought to have originated with the Phoenicians, who spread it to Egypt, where the first documentary evidence of the practice is said to be found. I say "said to be found" because in the many explainers and histories of bottarga that can be found online, one claim about the existence of an Egyptian mural dating back to the 10th century BCE that depicts fishermen preparing sacs of roe, is recycled frequently. Egypt is also thought by many to be the origin point of bottarga for the wider world since the word "bottarga" is derived from the Arabic word "butarkhah," which in turn is derived from Coptic.

But, according to Andrew Dalby, a historian and linguist, the roots of the word are a little more complicated. Dalby notes that bottarga was enjoyed by the inhabitants of Byzantium, which was colonized by the Greeks in around 600 BCE. As he writes in Tastes of Byzantium: The Cuisine of a Legendary Empire, "In addition to all the seafood delicacies known to classical Greece, the Byzantines appreciated salted greymullet [sic] roe, ootarikhon (literally 'egg pickle': the Greek word is the source of Coptic outarakhon and thus of Arabic butarkhah and of the modern term 'botargo')," which seems to indicate that the Greeks can lay claim to the name, if not the process itself.

Regardless of its origins, bottarga and the method for making it was transmitted to civilizations all along the Silk Road, ending up both in the Far East, in places like China, South Korea, and Japan, and in the West, including what is now Italy. It is discussed in Libro de Arte Coquinaria, a book of Italian medieval cookery written around 1465 by Martino de Rossi, who is variously known as "the prince of chefs" or, more dismally, "the world's first celebrity chef." Many of the recipes in the book, which has been translated, outfitted with additional recipes, and published by the University of California Press as The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book, were copied entirely by Bartolomeo Sacchi in his gastronomical treatise De honesta voluptate et valetudine, which has the distinction of being the first cookbook ever printed. Of bottarga, the prince of chefs describes the process of making it—use very fresh roe, cure it with salt, press it, then dry—and offers just a small note on how to eat it: "Bottarga is generally eaten raw, but those who wish to cook it can do so by heating it under ashes or on a clean, hot hearth, turning it over until it is hot all the way through."

Samuel Pepys, whose detailed diary has offered up to a history a clear view of life in England in the latter half of 17th century, mentions bottarga in an accounting of a fine-sounding summer night's activities in the diary entry from June 5, 1661: "So home Sir William and I, and it being very hot weather I took my flageolette and played upon the leads in the garden, where Sir W. Pen came out in his shirt into his leads, and there we staid talking and singing, and drinking great drafts of claret, and eating botargo and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled."

All of which I note merely to point out that it has been enjoyed for centuries, from Byzantium to Rome and London and beyond.

Different Kinds of Bottarga

Interior of mullet bottarga from Smeralda

Interior of Smeralda-brand mullet bottarga

The botargo of Samuel Pepys and the bottarga of Martino de Rossi appear to be extremely similar products to the bottarga we can buy today: that is, bottarga di muggine, or the roe sacs of grey mullets, cured and dried. There are some differences between different cultures' bottarga-like products: The Greeks appear to coat their avgotaraho in beeswax, which acts as a preservative; karasumi produced in Japan and Taiwan is not dried as thoroughly as Italian bottarga, and is a little softer as a result (and is often also covered in wax to prevent further drying). Eoran, the Korean version of cured and dried grey mullet roe, is cured in soy sauce, and is brushed with sesame oil as it dries—here is a wonderful collection of photos of the process.

Interior of mullet bottarga from l'Oro di Cabras

Interior of l'Oro di Cabras-brand mullet bottarga

There is one other variety of bottarga that should be mentioned, namely bottarga di tonno, made from sacs of tuna roe. While bottarga made from grey mullet is generally more prized than tuna bottarga due to its more delicate (read: milder, less fishy) flavor, at least in the United States, the tuna variety is far more difficult to find, and much more expensive. It is also slightly softer than the mullet variety, which makes it difficult to grate, even with a Microplane (popping it in the freezer for a bit helps).

Interior of tuna bottarga

Interior of tuna bottarga

Bottarga made from mullet roe is subtly salty, with hints of the fishiness you'd taste in caviar or uni. The bottarga made from tuna roe has a more pronounced salinity and more aggressive dried fish flavor, with a definite mineral edge. Tastes vary, of course, but for my part, I prefer the tuna bottarga.

Where to Buy Bottarga

Mullet bottarga from l'Oro di Cabras, sold by Gustiamo

Mullet bottarga from l'Oro di Cabras, sold by Gustiamo.

Bottarga is a specialty item, and, as such, you'll have to seek it out at Italian specialty stores or online—Amazon has quite a large selection. For those readers who live in New York City, the two locations of Eataly regularly carry bottarga, and specialty shops like Un Posto Italiano regularly stock bottarga, too.

I generally buy and use the Sardinian mullet bottarga imported by Gustiamo, which you can purchase through Amazon, or from Gustiamo directly. Gustiamo is also, as far as I can tell, the only domestic importer of tuna roe bottarga, although the product is, at $57 for about four ounces, significantly more expensive than the mullet bottarga, which a similar sized piece sells for just $24.

We do not recommend buying pre-grated bottarga products, as it is, like hard cheese, best when grated fresh. And speaking of cheese, I find it best to view bottarga in the same context as premium cheese products like Parmigiano-Reggiano. A pound of Parmigiano usually retails for about $20, and while that is about five times cheaper than a pound of bottarga, that amount of cheese will suffice for a similar number of plates of pasta as four ounces of bottarga, since you'll use bottarga more sparingly.

How to Use and Store Bottarga

Soft scrambled eggs on toast topped with grated bottarga

Aside from the way it tastes, the best part of bottarga is that it effectively keeps indefinitely. Even after you open up the packaging, peel back the pellicle, and grate some over pasta, the remainder will keep, tightly wrapped in plastic and refrigerated, for months and months.

A word about that pellicle: It is in fact the membrane that encapsulates the roe sac, which turns papery during the process of curing and drying. While it is not absolutely necessary to remove it, it is preferable. As Andrew Feinberg notes in Franny's: Simple, Seasonal, Italian, if you don't peel it off, "it might get caught in your teeth." Generally speaking, I peel only as much as I want to use, much like certain salami with inedibly chewy casings.

Mullet bottarga with pellicle partly removed

Mullet bottarga with the pellicle partially removed.

Once it's peeled, you're all set to use it as you see fit. You can use it as a finishing ingredient, finely grated or crumbled over any number of things, or you can enjoy it on its own, in thin slices, dressed with a little olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon. If you like, you can go in an Asian direction, or a Middle Eastern one; it has been enjoyed the world over for hundreds of years because of its versatility, and I'm sure it would go well with the flavors of any cuisine—Mexican, say, or Thai.

Two bowls of pasta side by side, with tuna bottarga grated over bowl on left, and mullet bottarga grated over bowl on right

Pasta with tuna bottarga (left) and mullet bottarga (right)

Here, then, is a short list of suggestions: It is excellent grated over pasta, particularly in simpler preparations, like aglio e olio or, my current favorite pasta and bottarga combination, pasta al limone. (Italian purists, like Sasha, will object to just grating bottarga over any old pasta, as there is a specific pasta dish called—what else?—pasta con la bottarga. I am obviously not a purist, nor Italian!) It is a wonderful accent for the humble boiled egg, whether hard- or soft-boiled; it is a fine addition to a plate of soft-scrambled eggs; it is quite tasty with a plain bowl of steamed white rice, or as a topping for tamago kaki gohan; it is a fitting substitute for grated dried scallops in fried rice, of the kind you might find at a Cantonese banquet hall—grate it on top of a mound of fried rice before serving.

The only note of caution I'll provide is you should avoid cooking bottarga. As Martino says, you can gently warm it, but given its delicate flavor and its high cost, it would be a waste to, say, sauté grated bottarga along with a sofrito.

Soft-boiled eggs topped with grated bottarga

Barring that, do with it what you like. Put it on mashed potatoes, or grate it over broiled asparagus or, like a particularly inventive cook in New York, put it on top of beef tartare. The ocean's the limit.