26 October 2016
Pan-fried mullet roe with daikon radish. Photo: HKEJ
Pan-fried mullet roe with daikon radish. Photo: HKEJ

Black gold from the sea: Flathead grey mullet roe

The flathead grey mullet, an important species in the mullet family Mugilidae, is generally found in coastal tropical and subtropical waters across the world.

Properly salted, cured and dried, the fish roe can make for a universally acclaimed delicacy that is known, depending on which part of the world you are in, as Greek avgotaraho, Taiwanese wuyutsu, Korean myeongran jeot, Japanese karasumi, Italian bottarga, Turkish haviar or Egyptian batarekh.

The flathead grey mullet is catadromous, meaning that they would migrate down freshwater to the sea to spawn. Every year, the mullet fish growing up in the Bohai Bay of northeastern China would follow the warm current to the coastal waters of southwestern Taiwan to spawn around the Winter Solstice.

The Taiwan fishermen, meanwhile, can catch the fish easily by setting sail with the help of the southerly wind. After the catch, they often return to Kaohsiung or Tainan as the dry weather of the southern Taiwan favors the drying of the roe.

Wild flathead grey mullet used to be the source of wealth to the fishermen. Once, a single catch yielded a record-breaking one million fish. Given such bounty, it is not surprising to hear people boast that one catch could be enough to secure a person some property in exchange.

The preserved mullet roe is an all-time luxury and it is dubbed as the “black gold”. Taiwanese people used to show off their wealth by the amount of the delicacy they had in possession.

However, in recent years, the number of wild flathead grey mullet has dived. With increasing competition from Chinese fishermen, the cured roe produced in Taiwan is now mostly from imported mullet.

The making of mullet roe is never an easy task. First, the fish has to be cut open with care and the roe taken out intact. The roe is then washed, massaged by hand to eliminate air pockets, and dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks. From time to time, it has to be pressed by heavy bricks to remove excess water and for effective drying in the sun.

Cooking of the mullet roe is relatively easy. First, remove the outer skin and wax layer of the roe carefully. Spray it with grain spirits such as whiskey. Pan-fry each side of the roe till it is slightly burnt with the alcohol vaporized. Then slice the roe and serve it with thinly sliced daikon radish.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 4.

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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