by David Cecelski
My mother and I found a pair of big jumping mullet at the fish market last week and they turned out to be heavy with lovely golden roe. Striped, or “jumping,” mullet roe is a delicacy here on the North Carolina coast, especially between Cedar Island and Stump Sound. This time of year, local fishermen catch the big momma roe mullet all around Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout. A last crew of fishermen still catches them off the beach at Salter Path, too, a tradition that goes back at least to the early 19th century.
These days the bulk of our state’s mullet roe harvest is bound for markets in Taiwan and Japan, where it’s considered a great delicacy. The Taiwanese and Japanese must be our kindred spirits. I’m not sure how they prepare the roe, but here people usually just lightly salt the egg sacs, sometimes coat them with flour, and fry them, pan covered, on low or moderate heat in a little oil.
The roe can also be preserved. Freezing is the most popular way to preserve it. To freeze mullet roe, you salt it heavily, let it sit for about 3 hours, wash off the salt, wrap individual pieces of the roe in wax paper or Saran Wrap and put it in your freezer. Then you can fry or bake the roe anytime.
A more old fashioned way of preserving mullet roe is salting the roe and drying it in the sun. Old fishermen around here used to do that when I was a child—they’d keep the dried roe in their pockets and eat it like beef jerky in their boats. A few old codgers still sun dry mullet roe and that’s what I’m doing with mine this week, too.
Here’s how I dry my mullet roe: first, I wash off the roe, give it a good salting (almost like I was coating it with flour ), and let the roe sit for 3 hours. Then, I wash off the salt, lay the roe on a clean plank, and press it down slightly. I leave the roe on the plank and let it bask in the sunshine. Once or twice a day, for the first few days, I turn and press down the roe again. How long you dry it is a matter of taste, but I usually dry roe 1 to 2 weeks—when it’s as hard as parmesan cheese rind I know it’s ready.
Once its dried, the roe will last well in a cool, dry place. You can bake the roe or eat it uncooked, like the old fishermen on their boats. No matter how you eat mullet roe, it has a rich, salty piquancy that is a rare treat. For me the flavor always brings to mind the wild, raucous smell of the salt marshes and quiet little bays where I grew up.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I always eat dried mullet roe the traditional way. Sometimes I do, but other times I try more exotic recipes. At the moment, I’m smitten by Italian uses for dried mullet roe, especially a very old, very traditional recipe from Sardinia and Sicily called spaghetti con bottarga.. It’s just spaghetti tossed with grated dried mullet roe that has been fried lightly in olive oil and garlic, with maybe a little parsley and/or lemon juice added. To me the flavor is that of home and of far-off seas, all in a single dish.