I bought locally caught herring from the fishmonger, Blue Moon, last Wednesday. Since Blue Moon won’t come back to the Greenmarket until next April I purchased extra herrings and porgy to freeze them for later consumption. I cleaned and filleted the fish, salted them a bit and placed them in plastic bags for storage. While filleting the herring I was thinking of herring roe – a must have New year food item. None of my fish had roe. It is anyway too early for them to carry eggs.
Herring roe, kazunoko, is a precious food item in Japan. The roe costs 10 times more than the fish itself. The herring roe was added to the New Years’ Celebration Meal, Osechi ryori, back in the mid of Edo period (1600-1868). Osechi ryori is a collection of prepared dishes, packed in several stackable, lacquered jubako boxes, and is served at breakfast-, lunch- and/or dinner-table over the first three New Year days. Almost every item in the boxes have a reason to be included. Tiny, golden-colored herring roes – one sack of roe has close to 50,000 eggs inside – symbolize fertility, that is family prosperity.
Herring was harvested in the northern most water of Japan, Hokkaido. As a demand for the roe increased more fish was harvested, and eventually over-fished. By 1957 herring in the Japanese water was almost gone. Another contributor of the herring roe demand comes from sushi restaurant, which started to serve herring roe sushi in the 1950s. So we have been importing the roe from Russia, Canada and Alaska. Since only the roe fetches high price, it is said that after removing the roe the fish is, in some cases, damped and wasted.
Which is important for us to do today – preservation of our cultural ritual or saving ocean resource?
For those who are interested in knowing (as a knowledge, but not practicing) how we prepare herring roe for New Year’s dish, here is the information. Herring roe comes in dried type (this is superior; photos you see here is the dried type soaked in cold water) and salt cured type. Both of them needs to be reconstituted in water to the full original size. Salt cured one needs to be fully de-salted. After reconstitution we remove the very thin white skin of the roe sack. Some people marinate peeled roe in the dashi, mirin and shoyu mixture overnight. My mother did not do it. She kept telling me that the marination masks and destroys the true flavor of the roe. She carefully broke the peeled roe into bite sized pieces by hands, poured the sauce over it and served it garnished with few freshly shaved katsuobushi fish flakes. Roe was extremely, pleasantly crunchy and had strong ocean flavor.