When it comes to Japanese cuisine, some of the most recognizable dishes often come adorned with a brightly colored crown of fish eggs. Fish eggs come in all shapes and sizes in Japan, with three of the most popular being masago, tobiko, and ikura.
Either through its versatility or its price, masago is one of the most common fish eggs found outside of Japan. Masago comes from the smelt family of fish, and as such is extremely small and fine, and are a pale yellow in color. Masago is the cheapest of the three, and can be used as a replacement for the more expensive tobiko, though there is some difference in texture and flavor, as they tend to be softer and slightly more bitter.
You’ll often see it as a garnish on top of sushi rolls, though you may find it in a dish called komochi shishamo, which is a whole grilled or fried smelt full of masago. You eat them whole from head to tail, and they burst with flavor when you take a bite!
In contrast to masago, tobiko are eggs from flying fish. Tobiko, while also tiny, is generally larger than masago, and comes in shades of orange to red. You can tell tobiko from the signature “crunch” when you bite into the eggs. Their firm texture gives a nice pop, and the taste is noticeably sweeter and can have a salty bite depending on the brining.
Tobiko is frequently used as a garnish for sushi rolls, where is it sometimes dyed using other natural ingredients to make it green, more yellow, or black. You also find tobiko served as a topping for gunkan sushi (sushi rice with a topping wrapped in a tall piece of nori seaweed).
Ikura is the largest and most expensive of the three. These are large pearl-
shaped eggs ranging from deep orange to red, with a soft skin that will positively gush with flavor when you break it open in your mouth. Coming from salmon, these are most often what is referred to if you hear the term “Japanese caviar” as they are considered a higher priced and quality ingredient.
Like tobiko, ikura is used as a garnish in Japanese cooking to impart a burst
of briny flavor to a dish. You also can find it on almost every sushi menu, served gunkan style over rice, wrapped in nori.
While it may be difficult at first to tell these apart, taking the time to learn the flavor profiles of each will surely reward you as you explore Japanese cuisine.
About the author:
Michael is originally from Chicago, IL in the United States, but has lived in Japan for seven years in Niigata and Hokkaido. He is an avid home chef, baker, and coffee enthusiast, but his one true love is ramen. Ever in pursuit of the perfect bowl of noodles, you can always find him by listening for the tell-tale slurp of ramen being enjoyed!