Beluga and Sevruga are swell, especially for New Year's. But if these two delicacies are beyond your pocketbook, welcome the new year with caviar anyway--budget caviars that cost as little as 57 cents an ounce.
They're the roe of pollock, cod, smelt, herring and flying fish, and you'll find them in Japanese and Korean markets. Don't look down on these Oriental products as poor cousins to costly sturgeon and salmon roe. They have their own personalities. Some taste subtly of sake. And some are so zingy with red pepper or Japanese horseradish ( wasabi ) that you'll be gasping for Champagne or whatever cold drink is at hand.
In sushi bars, you may have seen tiny golden grains of smelt roe paired with a quail egg atop nori -wrapped rice. Called masago , this roe costs as little as $1.99 for 3 ounces. Brilliant orange masago makes a fine topping for a pale dip, a bright garnish for a canape or an addition to a spread. Try also topping a cucumber slice with a mound of roe, or scatter it over cream cheese that you've spread on a cracker, cucumber or zucchini slice.
The brand sampled for this column, packed by Nishimoto Trading Co. of Kobe, was mild in flavor and tasted pleasantly of sweet sake. Not all smelt roe products are identical, however. Lake smelt roe from the Pacific California Fish Co., purchased in a Korean market, had more ocean flavor, and the label listed salt as the only seasoning. The price was $4.99 for a 6-ounce tub.
Pacific California also packs flying fish roe-- tobiko --at $7.50 for a 6-ounce tub. Salty and a bit sweet from mirin (sweet sake), it is darker in color than the smelt roe but can be used in the same fashion.
Salmon roe ( ikura ) is much more expensive--$29.99 a pound at Yaohan in Little Tokyo. But Yaohan also packs small quantities in disposable blue and white, bamboo-patterned trays that can go straight to the table. The price is $2.70.
Two products that require caution are herring roe with horseradish ( kazunoko wasabi ) from Nishimoto Trading Co. and Pacific Giant salted herring roe from Korea. The herring roe with horseradish is a smooth green paste that includes radish, cucumber, wasabi, sake and roe. The wasabi dominates, and even a small taste will send shock waves up your nose.
The Korean salted herring roe looks like red pepper paste, and that's what it tastes like. Incredibly hot, it is best used as a spicy condiment. Stir a little into soups, sauces or dips that can take a hot touch. But there's more to the flavor than red pepper. Garlic and sugar are also blended in.
The least expensive product sampled was the herring roe with horseradish at $1.99 for 3.52 ounces. The salted herring roe was $5.99 for a 5.6-ounce jar.
Seasoned pollock roe from Korea, packed by Marukai Corp. of Honolulu, could be used straight from the jar as a spread or blended with cream cheese for a milder flavor. It's a pasty product with a flavor reminiscent of caviar. Red pepper seasons the mixture, but gently. Rice wine, soy sauce, garlic and bonito are other ingredients. This was $4.99 for an 8-ounce jar at the California market.
Sugar is the second ingredient on the label of seasoned cod fish roe, a Japanese product from Showa Marine Inc. However, the taste is only mildly sweet. The granules are distinct rather than processed into a paste and would look good in a dip. The price was $5.99 for a 3.1-ounce jar.
Other roe products available in Asian markets include one that seems to be making a bid for wider acceptance. This is Yamaya's spicy mentai , seasoned pollock roe that is touted on the label as "a new Oriental appetizing caviar." The price was $4.98 for 8 ounces at Yaohan.
Yaohan is located at 333 S. Alameda St., Los Angeles, and 2121 W. 182nd St., Torrance. Other markets that sell the roe products sampled are Enbun Co., 124 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Little Tokyo; Modern Food Market, 332 East 2nd St., Little Tokyo; and California Market, a Korean market at 450 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles. sg,2