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Fish that lays the golden eggs
Most people are put off by the roe's strong fishiness. But this rainy season delicacy can be transformed into a delicate, creamy cloud.
Last weekend, at the 75th birthday celebrations of a favourite uncle, my mum-in-law (his sister) who was hosting the event, decided her menu would evoke the dinner parties of Calcutta in the '60s and '70s. From the prawn cocktail starter to the chicken stroganoff entree and the luscious lemon sponge cake with luxe chocolate ganache icing that concluded it, the meal was a tribute to the fine dining of a more gracious and elegant era. To accompany the drinks that preceded dinner I volunteered to make taramasalata - that wonderful middle-eastern mezze item whose chief ingredient is fish roe. Not only was taramasalata - or tarama as it is popularly referred to - a regular hors d'ouvre in the cocktail circuit of the '60s, but it's fish roe season right now, and there's plentiful supply in the local markets.
For those whose experience of buying fish eggs is limited to tinned or bottled caviar and bottarga, be warned that the fresh fish eggs at your local fish seller may take some getting used to. Typically lined up on the counter next to the fish, the long lobes of roe lie in an unattractive grainy grey mass. But appearances are deceptive: this monsoon delicacy lends itself a variety of preparations ranging from rustic spicy batter-fried boras of Bengali cuisine to the subtle blend of taste and texture captured in taramasalata. Tarama seems to have fallen out of favour these days and you rarely see it being served either in homes or restaurants. This is probably because the strong fishy character of the traditional dish isn't to everyone's taste. But I've discovered that that by tinkering with the proportions of olive oil and seasoning you can customise your tarama so that this pale pink dip slides along a register from robust musky fishiness to a delicate, creamy cloud that touches the palate with just a tantalising hint of roe.
Tarama is fish roe combined with olive oil, flavoured with lemon juice, garlic, and parsley, and bound together with breadcrumbs. Several of the classic recipes demand uncooked roe, but I'm squeamish about how safe it is to use the stuff raw in our climate. Instead, I sautê the roe (about 200g) in a combination of butter and olive oil that's well seasoned with sea salt, pepper and some chilli flakes. This also tempers the characteristic scent of the roe, without snuffing it out altogether.
Once the roe cools, I put the whole lot into the food processor, add half a slice of milk-soaked white bread, the juice of one lime, a couple of crushed cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of chopped parsley, and blitz the mix on low while pouring in a steady stream of extra-virgin olive oil - a cupful - through the funnel. About 20 seconds and the ingredients have come together into a creamy mix. At this stage you need to taste your tarama to adjust the seasoning to your liking: spritz in lime juice if you crave more tartness, get the salt factor right, and shake in more chilli flakes if it needs pepping up. Then decant into an attractive bowl, pour a golden swirl of olive oil on the salmon pink surface, garnish with a couple of sprigs of parsley and serve with whole wheat pita or thin slices of fresh brown bread.
But Tarama doesn't have to stay restricted to you mezze platter. I've experimented using it in a variety of ways and found it to be delightfully versatile and adaptable. It's divine as a sauce for pappardelle - coating the tangle of broad ribbons in a sophisticated creamy sauce. Tossing some black olives or crisped back bacon and peppery arugula through this pasta dish takes it a notch higher. Both plump red tomatoes and crisp cucumber batons wear a draping of olive oil laden tarama exceedingly well. And the next time you're having warm bagels for brunch, add a grown-up touch by sandwiching them with a filling of buttery scrambled eggs and a generous scoop of taramasalata.
Of course, there are several other ways of enjoying fish roe besides tarama. Along with phuluris (besancoated vegetable pakoras), Maacher Dimer Bora (deepfried fish egg fritters) are a favourite snack for Bengalis during the rainy season, accompanied by endless cups of tea. The Parsis make a deliciously piquant preserve by pickling the fish eggs in vinegar and a tangy spice mix. When I'm making Khow-Suey or a Laksa-type broth in this season, the easy availability of fish roe provides an exciting addition to the little bowls of toppings that guests can choose from to dress up their broths. I sautê the roe in minced garlic, finely-chopped green chilli, and a squeeze of lemon juice, breaking it up as it sizzles on the pan till I have a burnished crumble whose intense flavour is a perfect garnishing for these eastern broths. A last-minute generous dash of nutty sesame oil enhances the flavour further.
The musky scent of fish egg pairs perfectly with the deep ozone notes of dried seaweed and one of my most satisfying experiments with roe has been to use it as filling for sushi. I follow the basic steps for Tarama, leaving out the parsley, garlic and chilli (the wasabi in sushi gives an adequate kick). Aiming for a more grainy texture, I eliminate the bread and use just enough oil to hold the sautêed, processed roe together. The sushi is assembled using strips of rice vinegarscented omelette, thin long cucumber sticks and a band of the roe. Once rolled and cut these maki rolls looked gorgeous with their concentric circles of dark jade Nori, pearl white rice, pale gold egg, cool lemon green cucumber and, at the centre, the pink blush of roe.
TARAMA-STUFFED PITA POCKETS
One portion of tarama (about 200g fish roe) 2 small cucumbers chopped 2 tablespoons tahini mixed with extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, sea salt and a dash of lemon juice to form a smooth paste. Black olives Parsely 6 pita breads
Warm and split the pita bread. Spread the tahini paste inside each pocket, layer with cucumber, spoon in generous amounts of tarama and top with parsley and halved olives. Serve with wedges of lime, sea salt and a jug of golden olive oil on the side
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