This is a very simple dish to make. Strange to the average American palate, to be sure, but in its homeland it's pretty much everyday eatingâsort of Sardinian soul food, I guess. To learn more about it I went to my standard top reference for Sardinian cooking, Efisio Farris's great book,
Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey
. If you're down in Texas definitely go to his restaurants,
in Houston and
Arcodoro & Pomodoro
in Dallas, where you can get this dish and dozens of other great Sardinian specialties. Efisio and his wife Lori are the folks who send us all that super good Sardinian stuff we getâthe
pastas, really good olive oils, Corbezzelo honey, etc. Anyways, I looked up the dish in Efisio's book and got a bit of background, followed that up with a few conversations online with Lori, and then a bit more research from other books and a few friends, and although I really need to go to Sardinia to see and eat this stuff in its proper home environment, in the moment I've gotten a sense of it and figured I could share it here.
While here bottarga is about as totally exotic as one could get, in Sardinia, Lori Farris told me, "Everyone has a jar of it in their refrigerator." Which makes me realize I should back up slightly and tell you what this stuff actually is. Bottarga is basically, dried, pressed tuna roe. Could also be made from mullet, but right now what we've got is tuna. In its straight-up form it's the whole roe sackâsmall, really. I've seen them anywhere from like three to six inches long and maybe a couple inches across. If you've seen shad roe it's akin to that, I suppose. You shave off thin slices and eat it as antipasto, much as you would bits of prosciutto di Parma or Iberico ham. It's also eaten on the southern side of the MediterraneanâMajid Mahjoub told me that it's typically eaten on an appetizer plate with almonds (both raw and dry-roasted), tuna, preserved vegetables, ricotta, hardboiled eggs, preserved lemons, figs, etc. I've actually been told that bottarga (or
in French) is the "caviar of the Tunisian Jews," so I'm sure it'll come up more often in the future as we continue to explore the foods and culture of Tunisia.
While this pasta dish is so simple it's almost silly, curing the bottarga takes a bit more skill. The roe sack has to be carefully extracted from the fresh fish, then salted and dried to preserve it properly. We have the bottarga right now in the easier-to-use grated-and-sold-in-the-jar form, though the more I'm getting into it the more I'm getting ready to have us try to stock the whole roe. Anyway, whether you have it grated in advance or shave it off the whole cured roe sack at home, it's pretty powerfully tasty stuff.
I'm sure pasta with bottarga isn't for everyone, but anyone who's into full-flavored, slightly-strange-to-the-average-American-palate things like anchovies or wild mushrooms will probably like it. It's not like it's really all that "strong" or anything ... it's just got that sort of big league flavor that probably won't sit well with everyone, but that's probably true for a lot of what we serve and sell. To me it's got a really compelling, exotic flavor: earthy, slightly salty, and someone will probably say sexy so I'll beat them to it by saying it myself.