Bottarga: Everything you need to know

'Parmigiano reggiano of the sea': Slices of bottarga.
'Parmigiano reggiano of the sea': Slices of bottarga. Photo: iStock

​What is it? 

A humble and natural flavour enhancer that has been used for millennia. It is salted, pressed and sun-dried mullet roe that is pale orange to yellow in colour, flat, hard, yet pliable. The ancient Egyptians recorded the Phoenicians preserving fish roe in today's Lebanon. The word comes from the Greek avgotaracho, which means "egg" and "pickled". This became butarah in Arabic and bottarga in Modern Italian, and is made right around the Mediterranean coast. Greek and Italian migrants brought the skill to Australia post-WWII, building a small bottarga industry in Queensland and NSW using local mullet. 

Why do we love it? 

The proof of the power of preserved ingredients to enrich and enhance dishes is in the eating. Look at how parmesan cheese improves pasta and how jamon makes everything more delicious. When the salt is rubbed into the sausage-like sacks of raw mullet roe, it stops the eggs from going off while they slowly dehydrate under the sun's warmth. As this happens, the proteins in the eggs break down into amino acids, one of which is glutamic acid. When it hits our tongues, it tastes delicious and makes everything else taste better. Finely grated bottarga with its salty tang, the taste of the sea, and a smooth, mild fish flavour brings an extra dimension of deliciousness to the food with which it is served.

Spaghetti with bottarga.

Neil Perry's spaghetti with bottarga. Photo: William Meppem

Who uses it?

Sydney chef Scott McComas-Williams loves bottarga. "It's the parmigiano reggiano of the sea," he says with a laugh. "It is umami.com, one of the most powerfully flavourful ingredients on the planet." The executive chef of Ragazzi Wine and Pasta serves it with Piel de Sapo melon and, as he learned from a Sardinian waiter, with raw egg yolk, chopped parsley and lemon juice over freshly cooked pasta. Francesco Rota, chef and co-owner of Melbourne's Trattoria Emilia, has a strong memory of a dish of smoked herring, bottarga, ricotta and a saffron sauce over pasta at two Michelin star Da Caino in Tuscany. In his Little Collins Street restaurant, he grates a little over hot scallop dressed with bottarga mayo and a little collatura di alici – Italian anchovy liquid. "With a glass of fiano, it's a bomb!" 

How do you use it? 

Firstly, grated bottarga is sensational over buttered pasta. You need nothing else other than a glass of wine to complete the dish. Try spaghetti with tomatoes and a little chili. Grate it over hot flatbread and drizzle with oil and enjoy as an apertivo. Make a delicious salad of finely sliced fennel and radicchio topped with bottarga. Grate bottarga into aioli to make a dressing for a Caesar salad. Make soft scrambled eggs and grate 50g of bottarga and enjoy on hot buttered sourdough. 

Where do you get it?  

Look out for Bottarga Australia brand available in good delis and food stores. You can buy it from yarravalleysalmon.com.au and salumi.com.au. Essential Ingredient stocks Bottarga di Muggine sourced and produced in Australia by Sardinian born Sydney chef Giovanni Pilu. Look for firm, slightly pliable bottarga with a slight sheen but not slimy. Most bottarga weighs about 120g and you will most likely use a third or half in one sitting, so after use wrap tightly in baking paper and then in plastic wrap or a ziplock bag and return to the fridge.