Chances are if you’re not mid-Atlantic you’ve never heard of fried shad roe. Which, honestly, is a hell of a shame.
Shad is a type of river herring, an anadromous fish that migrates from salt water up rivers to spawn in fresh water. Each spring, shad travel hundreds of kilometers upstream to spawn. These “poor man’s tarpons” are acrobatic and great to catch on light tackles. More importantly, they are super tasty. The flesh is delicate, but it is one of the boniest fish. Fish roe (fish roe) is prized as an ephemeral ingredient – the definition of hyper-local and seasonal ingredients. It’s something everyone should try if they get the chance.
Fish eggs, like most eggs, have an incredibly rich flavor. Shad egg sacs contain hundreds of thousands of tiny unfertilized eggs that range in color from powdery pink to crimson orange. They have a brine and egg flavor and a distinct textural “pop”. These egg sacs are traditionally pan-fried with bacon grease to crisp the outside and leave an undercooked center. This is usually served with eggs, toast or oatmeal, anything that will balance out the richness of the eggs.
I have experimented with cooking shad eggs in several ways and found that in this case the classic preparation does not require any improvement. Shad eggs should be dusted lightly with flour, cornmeal, or both, then pan-fried in bacon fat. The key is not to overcook it, and it only takes a minute or two to get a nice crispy exterior. Continuing to cook it after that dries out the eggs and changes the texture dramatically. You want a soft, almost creamy interior that’s not dried out and crumbly.
The bacon grease adds a bit of smoky flavor that pairs perfectly with the eggs, while adding a little salt. As for what to serve it with, creamy southern oatmeal is my favorite. They soak up excess fat and match the texture of shad eggs. You really don’t need much else to complete this meal, but if desired, a slightly acidic sauce goes very well. Pesto, chimichurri or picatta are all solid additions. I like to serve mine with lightly sautéed ramps with a twist of lemon.
When it comes to sourcing shad eggs, you want to get the freshest you can get. Frozen shad eggs are simply not the same. You can find it at seafood markets in the spring, or go catch some shad yourself. You can tell which shad has eggs by gently squeezing the abdomen. The male shad will have a white substance (milt) protruding from its urogenital opening, while the female roe shad will show orange-red eggs.
Before you go fishing, check your local regulations on the legality of keeping shad. On the east coast, where the shad is native, regulations can vary widely from locality to locality. In some areas it is illegal to keep American shad, but legal to keep Hickory shad (a slightly smaller and equally tasty fish). On the west coast, where shad have been introduced, the regulations are more relaxed.
Also, shad meat is extremely tasty, so don’t waste it. They’re full of bones, which makes them difficult to eat, but they’re one of the most delicate and flavorful fish around.