Mentaiko is a roe of Alaska pollock marinated with salt and chilli pepper, which is a famous local product from Fukuoka prefecture. It is often eaten with rice, or used as an ingredient for rice ball. It is believed that the word mentaiko originates from the Chinese word “mintai” (明太) which means Alaska pollock, and the Chinese character can be read “mentai” in Japanese.
It is written in a literature that the roe of Alaska pollock marinated with salt was offered in 1424. The roe of Alaska pollock untreated or marinated with only salt is called tarako, and tarako existed everywhere in Japan. In 1903, the fishery of Alaska pollock flourished in Hokkaido, and tarako became more popular.
After the Russo-Japanese war until the middle of Pacific war, the ferry which was plying between China and Busan, where it was under the rule of Japan, carried marinated Alaska pollock. The ferry which was plying between Busan and Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi prefecture, imported the marinated roe of Alaska pollock to Japan, and it started to be called mentaiko. Mentaiko back then marinated the roe with salt, and was sprinkled with chilli pepper.
The famous company in Japan that makes mentaiko is Fukuya in Hakata area of Fukuoka city. The founder of Fukuya, Toshio Kawahara ate marinated Alaska pollock roe in Busan when he was young, and recreated mentaiko on his own. His version of mentaiko was made by marinating the roe with seasoning liquid including chilli pepper, followed with lactic acid fermentation. Since then, mentaiko sprinkled with chilli pepper started to be less common.
In the 1980s, mentaiko started to be sold at department stores and retail stores, and became nationally popular. Mentaiko is now used for not only rice balls, but also for pasta.