Spring marks the arrival of herring roe on kelp and excitement is in the air as this Pacific Northwest Coast delicacy is traded and sold all along the coast. This is my mother’s Asian-inspired recipe for roe on kelp and continues to be my favourite way of preparing it.
An Indigenous food, rooted in tradition and culture, herring roe is enjoyed in many different ways along the coast. The Nuu-chah-nulth harvest it on hemlock, while further north the Heiltsuk from Bella Bella have the herring spawn on kelp. Growing up, I was only ever familiar with our neighbours to the South’s roe on kelp. My Chinese mother prepared it in her own special way, which is what I am sharing today. Fried herring roe on kelp with soy sauce has a special place in my heart.
Herring Roe and Traditional Indigenous Diets
About Pacific Herring
Pacific herring is an important and integral food for Indigenous Peoples, from Oregon to Alaska (1). Herring, a small, oil-rich fish, can be eating cooked, smoked, fermented, processed into oil, and the herring roe (eggs) can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried for future use.
Herring As A Keystone Species
Herring is a key prey of some salmon species, many other fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Herring are a forage fish and convert phytoplankton into food energy. They form large schools during their seasonal cycles that serve as a concentrated food resource that feeds marine predators, along with people.
Herring As A Cultural Keystone Species
A cultural keystone species is defined as one that shapes the identity of a people (2). On the Northwest Coast there are several cultural keystones including salmon and redcedar; herring is a cultural keystone species among some coastal First Nations.
Harvesting Herring Roe
Herring roe can be harvested from spawning beds on kelp or hemlock branches. The Hieltsuk (Bella Bella) harvest roe spawned on giant kelp (see photos). This is my favourite way of eating roe and is most familiar to me as it was traded and sold in Prince Rupert where I grew up.
The Nuu-chah-nulth, along with other coastal First Nations place branches of hemlock in the water for about three days. The roe can be eaten right off of the branch or separated before cooking. The hemlock needles lend a slight tannin flavour to the roe.
Historical Preservation of Herring Roe
Today we have the convenience of freezers, keeping our roe preserved to be used throughout the year. Traditionally herring roe was dried as a form of preservation and this was done by separating the roe-laden branches and hanging them on a drying rack. Dried roe was then immersed in cold water for a few hours, drained, and then put into hot water before being drained again before eating (3). Preserving in oil or fermenting was another method used to keep the roe for future use.
Nutritional Benefits of Herring Roe
Protein and Herring Roe
We love protein for building strength and immunity, as well as for its ability to help us feel more full, and to stabilize blood sugar levels. Per 100 grams of herring roe on kelp, there is around 11 grams of protein (1). For the same quantity of dried roe, there is 60 grams of protein! Don’t get too excited, the difference is likely due to the fact that the kelp makes up a large part of the 100-gram weight. A similar weight of fish or wild meat may contain somewhere between 20 to 30 grams of protein.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Herring Roe
Omega-3 fatty acids are well recognized by conventional science for their beneficial role in heart health, combating inflammation, and for supporting brain health (especially in the fetus and in young children). The total fat content of herring roe on kelp is 0.8 grams (per 100 gram in weight), compared to 6.6 grams of dried herring roe, or 10.6 grams in herring meat. Despite the low fat content, herring roe is a good source of EPA and DHA (1).
Herring Roe – Mind, Body, Spirit
Herring roe is more than just protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The spring egg harvest continues to be an important cultural practice – the roe is cherished by coastal Indigenous peoples as a feast food and often frozen, to be brought out at cultural events throughout the year. At the Hobiyee Potlatch, the Nisga’a Newyear, there was herring roe on hemlock in February, likely preserved from the season before.
Tips On Preparing Hearing Roe
Method 1 – Soak The Herring Roe
Herring roe is generally packed in brine or has come straight from the saltwater, so it can be very salty. Depending on how thick the roe is, it may need to be soaked for anywhere from 2 hours to 6 hours. Community members have recommended the water be changed at least once during the soaking period. I have found this necessary when the roe is at least 1-inch thick. Taste a small bit of the soaking roe to check its saltiness during the soaking period.
Method 2 – Run The Roe Under Running Water
This is what my grandmother Marie does. Place the roe in a deep bowl and run it under cold water for about 10 minutes. Again, taste a small piece of the uncooked roe to see how salty it is. This works best for roe that is 1/2-inch or less in thickness.
Storing Extra Roe
If you have some roe you want to freeze for another time, freeze the unsoaked roe in large ziplock bags. If the roe has come already soaking in a brine solution, add some of this brine liquid into the freezer bags with the roe. This will help keep the roe fresh and prevent freezer burn. The roe will be good for 1 year if stored properly.
How To Make Fried Herring Roe with Soy Sauce
How To Serve Herring Roe On Kelp
- Have it just as it is
- Dip it in soy sauce
- Add it to a stir-fry
- Cut it into strips and roll it into sushi
- Enjoy it on a salad
A Few More Recipes Featuring Indigenous Foods
- Healthy Oat and Cranberry Crisp
- Two-Ingredient Corn Patties
- Cornmeal Patties with Wild Rice
- Chia Pudding with Wild Rice, Maple Syrup and Hazelnuts
Fried Herring Roe On Kelp with Soy Sauce
- 2 cups herring roe on kelp cut into 1-2" pieces
- 1-2 eggs
- 1-2 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Run it under cold water to remove the salty brine. You can keep tasting the roe to see if it is too salty. Alternatively, you can soak it for about 2-4 hours, changing the water once. The thicker the roe on the kelp, the longer you will need to soak it.
- Cut the herring roe into 1 to 2-inch pieces. Set aside.
- Whisk the egg with the soy sauce. Start with less soy sauce to start so it is not too salty.
- Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil and let the oil heat. Dip the herring roe pieces into the egg mixture and then add to the frying pan in a single layer. You may need to do 2-3 batches. Cook for about 2-3 minutes.
- Flip the roe over and cook for an additional 1-2 minutes on the other side. Check to see that the roe is cooked through - the roe should turn white and not be translucent. Serve with more soy sauce on the side.
Option 1 - Soak The Herring RoeAs the roe is generally packed in brine or has come straight from the saltwater it can be very salty. Depending on how thick the roe is, it may need to be soaked for anywhere from 2 hours to 6 hours. Some recommend the water be changed at least once during the soaking period. I have found this necessary when the roe is at least 1-inch thick. Taste a small bit of the soaking roe to check its saltiness during the soaking period.
Option 2 - Run The Roe Under Running WaterPlace the roe in a deep bowl and run it under cold water for about 10 minutes. Again, taste a small piece of the uncooked roe to see how salty it is. This works best for roe that is 1/2-inch or less in thickness.
Storing Extra RoeFreeze the unsoaked roe in large ziplock bags. If the roe has come already soaking in a brine solution, add some of this brine liquid into the freezer bags with the roe. This will help keep the roe fresh and prevent freezer burn. The roe will be good for 1 year if stored properly.
- Moss, M. (2019). The Nutritional Value of Pacific Herring: an Ancient Cultural Keystone Species on the Northwest Coast of North America. Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR.
- Garibaldi, A. & Turner, N. (2004). Cultural Keystone Species: Implications for Ecological Conservation and Restoration. Ecology and Society
- McGill – Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America – Herring
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.