Whoa, whoa there, that’s a lot of different names, where do we start from?
First, let me ask you, why do you want to know this?
Are you going on a journey of gastronomy bliss and delight?
Do you want to plan your evening, meal or Sunday lunch with a little bit of style?
Maybe you need this info so that you can make an informed decision about buying one of these delicacies?
No matter what the answer might be, I’ll help you.
Let’s start with, hmmm caviar, what do you think?
Caviar is used as a general term for any fish roe that was salted and prepared.
Caviar is indeed salted fish roe, but the one that comes only from the sturgeon, a fish that originates from the Caspian and Black Sea basins. Today, due to overfishing and damning of the rivers that flow into the seas, the sturgeon is raised in aquaculture farms all around the world.
This caviar is black in appearance and texture and the blackness can range from yellowish green all the way to complete and pure black. The roe is glossy, pea-sized or smaller.
The taste is different among the many types of sturgeon caviar, but all of them have one thing in common. The freshness of the rivers that run into the sea, along with the saltiness of the sea itself, a true delight. If you never experienced caviar, you check out these or these resources, its best to try it firsthand.
Ikura is the Japanese term for salmon roe. If you check my article on salmon roe I have explained a lot about its taste and origins.
The main difference between the “black” caviar and salmon roe is the color. It is fiery red due to naturally occurring pigment found in salmon – astaxanthin.
The taste is usually less salty and has this sweet salmon flavor which brings a whole umami experience to the table.
In Japan, the roe is traditionally salted with sea salt, and is part of Japanese cuisine so you can expect to find it in almost every sushi bar. Ikura, along with other fish roe, is enjoyed as a piece of nigiri in the form of a cluster of small eggs sitting atop a clump of rice and bound together by seaweed.
Salmon roe is more readily available and is cheaper than caviar. Along with tobiko, masago and a couple more of fish roe types, it belongs to a group more popularly known as red caviar.
Speaking about tobiko and masago, if you are a sushi fan you most certainly crossed path with this delights, but what are they?
Tobiko is the Japanese term for roe that comes from the flying fish
This is a tropical fish, and yes it flies, that is, leaps into the air at speeds of over 40 mph.
Just like salmon roe, tobiko is full of proteins, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Although high in cholesterol, this food is used only in small serving sizes so the health benefits greatly overweigh the bad sides.
Ikura, for example is used in sushi bars either by itself or as a part of another dish and is often a garnish on various types of sushi. Tobiko is most often used as the finishing touch or a garnish, but also as standalone plate for the true lovers of its taste. Speaking of which, tobiko has mild or smoky taste.
What really distinguishes tobiko from all other is the crunchiness best experienced in the famous California roles.
Natural tobiko has an orange color which is important to know as many times it will be severed in other colors.
THE COLORS OF TOBIKO
The thing is, tobiko is not dyed in food color, natural ingredients are used and here they are:
- For black it is squid ink that is used, but don’t let this alarm you, the ink is safe to eat and very natural
- For red it is often mixed with various chilies making it spicy
- Orange is the natural color of tobiko
- For yellow, Yuzu (form of citrus) is used, and this brings sour and tart refreshing taste
- For green, tobiko is made with wasabi and as you guess this combination gets pretty hot
Some other roe that is used in Japanese cuisines are masago, tobiko, ikura, uni, kazunoko, mentaiko, and ebiko.
Tobiko is also a Japanese word and roughly translates to “child of flying fish”. By correlation ebiko is translated to "Child" of "Ebi (Shrimp)" or "Shrimp Flakes." Its origins are from Hawaii.
Masago is again a Japanese word, meaning "child (roe)" of "True Sand." This is because masago is small in size, hence the sand analogy.
Masago is the roe of Capelin, an Atlantic and Artic fish and its roe is dull, pale orange in color, so it’s usually dyed before it is eaten. Common colors in which it can appear are bright orange, black and red. Masago, similar to salmon, lives in the sea but swims to the fresh water rivers to spawn.
Some of the perks that brought it on the menu of many sushi restaurants are availability, sustainability and a variety of dimensions to a sushi roll. It has the smallest eggs, about 1mm in diameter and is extremely low in calories but high in omega-3 acids. It has a natural crisp to its bite.
Often will chefs interchange tobiko for masago and for a good reason – masago is cheaper than tobiko.
Masago has a milder taste than tobiko, and for those who favor less intense flavor and taste, masago might be a better option. Tobiko has a nutty, almost smoky taste and more volume than capelin roe. Although it is regarded as superior than masago, it has a weaker taste than salmon roe. This happens because salmon roe is larger and the volume of ingredients is simply higher.
Not to forget, as masago is not that crunchy as tobiko, it is better in complementing the flavors of other food without being too overwhelming.
Putting everything in perspective, while caviar has been regarded as the prestigious food of the upper class, salmon roe was never in that bubble. The culture of caviar eating is different than the tradition in eating salmon roe.
These days sturgeon caviar is again accessible due to aqua farming but you would not find caviar that often in a sushi restaurant. On the other hand salmon roe can be found, as it was used traditionally in Japan, but also in the Russia, by common folk.
There is a greater availability of red caviar compared with sturgeon caviar, and that pushes the price down. Caviar has less of an umami taste, especially when compared to ikura when it’s cured in Japanese style with shoyu, or nihon-su.
Caviar is more fishy than tobiko but less fishy than ikura.
Tobiko and masago can be bought at any Japanese grocery store or any oriental market that sell fresh/frozen fishes. Both of them are sold as raw fresh roes in small disposable sauce cup or can be found frozen and sold in large block batch.
Caviar along with salmon roe is sold in metal tins.
There is whole world of culinary bliss out there waiting for you. There is no better way than to experience it firsthand.