Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs

Ikura, transluscent, close_n

Like fire opals lit from within, freshly cured salmon eggs are ready to be served as ikura sushi, sprinkled on a bowl of rice (ikuradon), as a seafood garnish, with cream cheese and rice crackers, or simply gobbled by the spoonful!

At $40 to $50 a pound wholesale (and more expensive than that at the grocery store, when you can find it), cured salmon roe is not a regularly featured food in most kitchens. But if you catch your own salmon – or are friends with someone who does – it can be. Although the process of curing fresh salmon roe is somewhat time consuming, it is not difficult, and with patience almost anyone can turn out a sushi-grade batch of this delicacy.

Salmon eggs, King, in sacs_n

These two matching skeins of eggs, or roe sacs, from a Chinook salmon were frozen this past summer and went into one of our ice chests when we flew to our home in Point Hope, Alaska this fall. Japanese chefs typically prefer the eggs of chum salmon (they’re big), but the eggs from any salmon species are fine. In fact, very attractive cured roe can be made from the smaller eggs of large char, too.

Whether you use fresh or fresh-frozen eggs, the first step (once the roe is completely thawed) is to separate the individual eggs from the skein. The riper the eggs, the easier this process will be. There’s a trick that makes this process much easier than it might otherwise be. Bring a pot of water to a temperature of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit and plunge the whole skein into the hot water. Remove the pot from heat and gently swirl the eggs around. You’ll probably want a pair of nitrile or plastic gloves for this. As you do this, you’ll notice the eggs becoming opaque – cream colored. They’ll look as though you’ve ruined the batch. You haven’t.

Ikura after soaking in hot water_n

Hot water temporarily colors the roe and makes it easier to remove from the membranous roe sac. Provided you have kept the water temperature below 140° F, do not be concerned if your eggs become whiter and more opaque than those in the above photograph.

Next, pour the eggs and the water into a strainer. Plastic colanders, with their smooth surfaces, work well for this step. A lot of the extraneous tissue will drain off at this point. Place the strainer with the eggs in a large pot, fill with cold water, and continue to swirl the eggs around. The fat and other unwanted tissue will tend to rise above the eggs and can be skimmed off with a wire mesh skimmer. Some of the eggs will still have tissue attached. These can be cleaned by hand.

Ikura before and after being cured_n

Left: Salmon roe separated and cleaned and ready to be cured. Right: the finished product – fresh, salty ikura.

The next step is magical. For each cup of salmon roe, add just less than a teaspoon of salt. Finely ground sea salt or kosher salt works best for this step. Gently but thoroughly mix the salt into the eggs with your hands. The eggs will immediately begin to turn bright and translucent. Taste and roe and, if desired, add additional salt.

Finally, place the eggs in a strainer one more time to allow excess liquid to drain off. The cured roe will keep for several days in the refrigerator. It can also be kept in the freezer in tightly sealed jars.

Ikura on plaice plate_n

One you get the basic method down, you can substitute soy sauce for some of the salt or add a splash or two of sake (酒) to create subtly different flavors.

We serve ikura on everything from scrambled eggs to seafood pizza, as well as on traditional Japanese dishes such as chawan-mushi and zaru soba. Below, they add a splash of color and flavor to crepes wrapped around smoked Alaskan salmon and herbed cream cheese.

Crepes w smoked salmon & herbed cheese_n

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A Philosophy of Life and Sushi

Yanagiba (sushi knife), ohashi (chopsticks) properly resting on an ivory spotted seal hashioki, and David Gelb’s documentary of world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono. Let the feast begin.

The shots of sushi will wow you. Segments depicting 85-year-old Jiro Ono magically transforming rice and fish into pieces of art that are at once too beautiful to be eaten and yet must be eaten will mesmerize you. The manner in which he and his 51-year-old son run Sukiayabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant in the underground subway system in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza District will, perhaps, prompt you to make subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the way you run your own kitchen. At the very least, you are likely to come away from the film with a heightened appreciation of tamagoyaki – the grilled egg dish frequently served on nigiri sushi menus. Sukiabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant in the world to earn Michelin’s top rating – the coveted three stars. The simple definition of a three-star restaurant is this: a restaurant that by itself makes a trip to that country worthwhile.

As a self-taught chef, as a father, as a person who is seeking to perfect my own path in life, and as one who lived in Japan for nine years and came to deeply appreciate the Japanese sensibility toward life, this film profoundly moved me. Jiro Ono embodies the characteristics of the shokunin – a master craftsman or artisan who, while possessing superb technical skills in his field, is also aware of his responsibility to model an honorable life and to look out for the welfare of others. In the film, Masahiro Yamamoto, one of Japan’s leading food critics,  identifies the five attributes of a great chef. These attributes are no doubt valued by all shokunin.

1. A serious attitude toward one’s work

2. Aspiration to improve – to strive for perfection

3. Cleanliness (which includes a proper order in one’s life and work)

4. Lead rather than collaborate

5. Bring passion to one’s work, (and through that passion to discover moments of ecstasy)

I’m going to add a sixth element to Yamamoto’s list. If Jiro’s life is about striving for perfection, the question is begged, “Perfection to what end?” To what purpose are the above five attributes?

It is this: They are all aimed toward providing others with an ultimate experience. Jiro dreams of sushi, yes. But what he really dreams of is providing his customers with a perfect dining experience. That is the sixth attribute: The desire to provide others with a penultimate experience.

Some of these attributes are, perhaps, antithetical to current western thinking. Therein lies the core of the criticisms of this film. Aren’t we supposed to value collaboration? Is the emphasis on cleanliness really so important? Is Jiro truly interested in others, or is he merely a shallow, self-inflated ego with no meaningful connection to other human beings – including his wife and his two sons? Doesn’t taking one’s work too seriously lead to imbalance in life?

I think this much is fair to observe: The path Jiro Ono has chosen in life is not a path that would suit everyone. But it is a path I admire. In the director’s cut, it is mentioned that a regret is that Jiro’s wife was unable to be in the film. This seems to be owing to the health of a woman in her 80’s, not about a failed partnership. His sons are both key players in the film, and speak of their father with honor, respect and love. They have both chosen to follow in his line of work, to embrace his teaching and have become highly respected sushi chefs in their own right. In turn, Jiro speaks with pride and admiration of both of his sons. As a father, I can very much relate to Jiro’s philosophy regarding child-rearing. You spend your life teaching and guiding, and in the end you hope a good bit of it takes root. In both of Jiro’s sons, his teaching did stick, his guidance payed off, and because his sons worked for many years in his restaurant, he ultimately spent more time with them than most fathers ever spend with their children.

As to taking one’s work too seriously and carving out one’s own path rather than collaborating, I grew up in a family wherein, not just in my nuclear family but in all the uncles and aunts in my extended family, the life philosophy most frequently espoused was an admonition to not take work (or anything else) too seriously. It was a philosophy that did not work for me, and ultimately inspired an opposing philosophy.

At the age of 4o, I began the long, sometimes arduous, deeply satisfying process of remaking my life. Part of the remaking has been rooted in a newfound freedom – a self-given permission to pursue life with renewed passion, dedication and a commitment to honor and excellence.  As I move forward with this life as a sailor, chef, writer, photographer, father and husband, this film that so eloquently captures the life and spirt of a true shokunin resonates.