Cured mullet roe, or bottarga, has been an international luxury for centuries.
In the West, it’s commonly used as a seasoning to add a hint of ocean brine to a fine pasta or soft scrambled eggs.
But in Taiwan, where it’s known as 乌鱼子 wuyuzi, bottarga is the entire dish—and can run up to $30 an ounce, though prices can fluctuate widely depending on the quality and grade.
Rather than grated, a cured slab of mullet roe is soaked in Kaoliang, a liquor made from fermented sorghum, before it’s toasted, sliced, and served with spring garlic.
China, Japan, Korea, and countries in Southeast Asia also have their own forms of bottarga prepared in a similar manner.
Bottarga has existed in Taiwan for at least 300 years, according to the seminal General History of Taiwan, and was used as currency when the Dutch colonized the island.
It brought added wealth to local fishermen who were able to turn their fresh catch into preserved products.
As in other parts of the world where bottarga is present, the process and intention of making it begins with salting the roe to preserve it.
But that’s where the similarities end. From here, Taiwanese bottarga diverges from the thoroughly dried and crumbly roe known in Italy to a creamy, fudge-like filet similar to a semi-firm cheese.
For a long time, the delicacy was seasonal, only offered during the winter months from December to January, when spawning mullet would follow the ocean currents to Taiwan’s southeastern coast.
As a result, it became associated with Lunar New Year, a holiday that falls around the same time.
“I can’t think of any other food that so represented a New Year’s treat in Taiwan.”
Katy Hui-Wen Hung, co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei, recalls her parents grilling and enjoying bottarga during Lunar New Year banquets.
“They treasured every piece,” she says. “I can’t think of any other food that so represented a New Year’s treat in Taiwan. It is eaten all year round now, but that was definitely not so 30 years ago.”
How traditional bottarga is made
In the bustling neighborhood of Dadaocheng in Taipei, Lee’s Sun, a dry goods store, has been selling traditional, handmade bottarga for 60 years.
It now carries the product year-round, but when the proprietor’s grandfather, Lee Ding, first tried to source handmade bottarga, he could only find producers that made them in the winter, before the Lunar New Year holiday, says Jerry Lee, the current owner of Lee’s Sun.
It was the only time that bottarga makers could make enough money off it.
But Lee Ding was so impressed with the product that he vowed to stock it year-round if the makers would commit to making bottarga throughout the year using only wild-caught mullet roe.
What drew him was the maker’s use of traditional techniques.
While many bottarga makers began using dehydrators to dry the roe, traditional methods called for pressing roe sacks with flat stones and air-drying them under mild sunlight. The goal is to press the sacks into a steak-like filet to shape and push out moisture.
The process is exact and laborious, requiring makers to periodically flip each piece while keeping a close eye on humidity and weather.
The process is exact and laborious, requiring makers to periodically flip each piece while keeping a close eye on humidity and weather. Sometimes, the process is moved indoors if necessary.
The result is a rich, fudge-like, sliceable slab bearing the natural sweetness of the ocean with an almost smoky, warm finish.
“These techniques are often passed down through oral tradition,” says Jerry Lee, the current owner of Lee’s Sun. “I like to think that my grandfather’s efforts helped to preserve these techniques.”
Bottarga for the masses
Part of bottarga’s year-round popularity owes to wider sourcing among Taiwanese producers.
Many makers turn to farmed mullet for off-season supply, and new technology such as dehydrators can shorten production time from weeks to days, providing various grades of bottarga to use and choose from.
And while local mullet roe is seasonal, available only during the winter, bottarga makers have begun sourcing roe from the United States, Brazil, Australia, and mainland China.
Brazil-based Bottarga Gold harvests mullet roe from the months of March to July and sells 90 percent of its stock, roughly 250 tons of roe, to Taiwan each year.
Bottarga’s year-round availability means it is no longer just a New Year’s banquet headliner, and there are now different grades of bottarga, with the lowest costing as little as $4 an ounce. It’s served in bars, with afternoon tea, and even used to make different sauces.
The rise of social media has spurred interest among a younger demographic, and demand for new interpretations of luxury items has increased.
Bottarga fried rice like the popular F4 fried rice at Tainan’s Jia Jia Restaurant and the one at Ah-Cheng Fried Rice Restaurant in Kaoshiung are the two restaurants’ most popular dishes. A microwavable version of bottarga fried rice is even available at local Family Marts.
Aside from spring garlic, sliced bottarga is now also paired with sweet Asian pears, daikon, and apples.
It’s also made an appearance in humble omelet rolls at Tainan’s Dan Bing Xiao Er, as an unconventional garnish on milk tea at Taipei’s Dadaocheng Tea Room, and consumed more traditionally with local beers as a midnight snack at stir-fry joints.
Taiwanese chocolatier Fuwan Chocolate has even released a mullet roe chocolate bar.
The proliferation of bottarga has expanded it from an important economic indicator in local fishing villages to a status symbol across all of Taiwan.
“I would say mullet roe has held the position for many decades of determining the value of a meal in Taiwan food history,” Hung says. “It has its charm in Taiwanese cuisine as an exciting ingredient for many, and gives culinary enthusiasts opportunity to be creative and develop something that never fails to be popular.”