Think of fish eggs, and you might picture a ritzy dinner party somewhere in Manhattan, where the 1% get together and savor their caviar while lamenting how hard it is to find good pilots for their private jets. Caviar isn’t the final word on fish eggs, though, and there are plenty of options that the rest of us can afford. That’s lucky for us, because the benefits of eating them are amazing. Fish eggs, also known as roe, are an incredible food rich in micronutrients and Omega-3 fatty acids. And unlike fermented cod liver oil (the other fish-derived food so nutritious it counts as a supplement), they’re actually tasty, either plain or as an ingredient in all kinds of recipes.
Fish Eggs and Nutrition
Roe can come from all different kinds of fish, including the beluga sturgeon (true caviar), other types of sturgeon (the source of a lot of imitation caviar), salmon (the red-orange eggs in sushi), and carp. Some shellfish, like lobsters, also produce edible eggs technically known as coral because of their color. While true roe (or hard roe) only comes from female fish, some markets also offer soft roe, which is the milt, or semen of the male fish. All the different kinds of roe are very nutritious, but salmon and carp roe are much more affordable for most people than fancy caviar. They’re also more environmentally friendly - overfishing has depleted the natural populations of beluga sturgeon so much that it’s actually illegal to import it into the US.
Nutritionally, fish eggs share one important benefit with fish oil supplements: they’re very high in anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fats. Since roe is a natural source of these fats, it even beats out a supplement for nutritional quality, since there’s much less risk of the fats oxidizing during processing.
Like most real foods, fish eggs also have more than one nutritional benefit. As one of the few food sources of Vitamin D (others include chicken eggs and fatty cold-water fish), roe is a great supplemental food, especially during the winter. Like Omega-3s, Vitamin D is even better from a whole food than from a supplement, since the whole food version contains other vitamins and minerals in an unprocessed form, without any fillers or additives. In fact, the Omega-3 fats and the Vitamin D in roe even work together, because Vitamin D is fat-soluble, so the healthy fats help your body absorb and use it.
Roe is also rich in Vitamin B12, one of the most important micronutrients for mental health and brain development. Like other seafood, it contains a substantial amount of selenium, a micronutrient otherwise hard to get, except from Brazil nuts. Magnesium, iron, and even a little bit of calcium round out an already impressive set of nutrition facts.
Before humans even had names for these vitamins, people in traditional cultures already knew how powerful roe was. Fish eggs are one of the most potent traditional “superfoods” for fertility, and Weston A. Price observed many cultures going to extreme lengths to feed roe to their pregnant women. Now, even the USDA is recommending that parents include it in their babies’ diets, although they would probably do better to recommend it for everyone.
Finding Good Fish Eggs
Since roe isn’t very popular in North America outside of sushi, it can be a challenge to find a good brand. The very best way to ensure the quality and freshness is to get the roe directly from the fish, at an actual fish market. Just be aware some species of fish eggs do contain toxins that can make you sick. You'll want to avoid them, and can see a list of those certain fish here. Fresh roe is a seasonal luxury, though, since it’s only available in spring when the fish are spawning. During the rest of the year, and all year round for people who don’t live on the coast, several online retailers provide roe that’s been prepared in various ways (usually salting and curing) to preserve it. If you go this route, make sure you get a product intended for human consumption, since fish eggs are also used as bait and food in aquariums.
It’s also possible to get roe at some supermarkets, if you live near a Whole Foods or another high-end chain. Even if the eggs aren’t usually available, check back again around New Year’s, since some stores will stock up on caviar around the holiday party season. Make sure to read the labels carefully: roe in a jar or can is often packaged with a lot of preservatives. Also try checking ethnic grocery stores, especially Asian markets and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern stores.
Cooking and Serving Fish Eggs
When cooking any kind of food rich in PUFA (even Omega-3 PUFA), it’s always best to choose a cooking method that won’t destroy the Omega-3s. Being packaged in a whole food, instead of an isolated oil, definitely helps keep the O3s in fish eggs intact. Lower heat is better, but even that isn’t a guarantee. Interestingly enough, some spices seem to help quite a bit: at 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit), rosemary and oregano extracts preserved over half of the Omega-3s when added to fish oil during cooking, compared to 15-20% without the oils.
If you’re lucky enough to get fresh roe straight from the fish, you can cure it yourself into salmon caviar, with a minimum of fuss and equipment. This method is very gentle on the Omega-3s, since it doesn’t use anything hotter than tap water. Alternately, you could sauté or bake the roe by itself, or even cook it with the fish it came in, for an impressive and nutrient-dense party dish. Pan-fried roe recipes also exist, but these are more suspect, since frying is one of the cooking methods most destructive to the O3 fats.
Another easy alternative is to let the roe simmer for a few minutes to cook, and then simply add it to any egg dish or omelet. The salty roe taste is a great addition to the eggs; try garnishing some deviled eggs with a sprinkle of caviar for an extra-fancy party dish. This simple egg soufflé would also be tasty with some roe baked in, and a plain omelet with just roe and eggs is a perfect proof that you don’t need a fancy recipe when you have fresh, high-quality ingredients.
For a different kind of preparation, taramosalata is a Greek dip made with fish eggs – it usually incorporates stale bread, but you can just as easily use potatoes or almonds for a Paleo version. It’s almost like fish egg mayonnaise: try it as a soup topping, a vegetable dip, or a snack straight from the spoon. Alternately, an adventurous take on safe starches is this parsnip dish with roe as a topping, flavored with cumin.
If you’re getting a pre-prepared package of fish eggs instead of cooking it yourself, roe aficionados claim that it’s best eaten straight out of the jar – grab a spoon and dig in. If a straight spoonful of little eggs grosses you out, you could also try serving them as a “topper” on hard-boiled eggs, crackers, or these Primal blinis, tiny pancakes made with eggs and butter (this also adds even more nutritional value to a food that’s already fantastic in itself). Instead of buying the fish eggs plain, you might also be able to find a traditional Italian preparation called botargo (also spelled bottarga). Botargo is a spread made with cured roe and usually served either plain or on crackers.
Enjoy your Fish Eggs!
Seafood and eggs are two of the most nutritious parts of a Paleo diet, so if there’s ever a competition for the ultimate Paleo superfood, fish roe would at least be a strong contender (now if only there were a way to get fish roe liver…). Of course, no one food is the “perfect food” all by itself, but that’s just a reason to prepare these tiny delicacies with other nutrient-dense foods like eggs and butter, dish up some taramosalata with kale chips, or enjoy your roe as an ingredient in Paleo-friendly sushi.