If you’ve ever been to a sushi restaurant, you’ve no doubt seen the colorful little balls, slightly larger than poppy seeds, used to garnish many sushi rolls. A spectrum of orange, red, green, and black. They add vibrancy and subtle flavor. However, there is much more to these ingredients than just a bright and colorful touch.
If you didn’t already know, these garnishes are fish roes. While the smallest ones are the most common in American-style sushi rolls, there are many other types and sizes of fish eggs used in Japanese cuisine. Most fish roe contains several essential vitamins and minerals and is also high in protein and amino acids and low in calories, so it makes quite a healthy addition to any dish.
Tobiko: The Colorful Flying Fish Roe
Those small fish eggs of many colors all come from the same fish — the flying fish. The roe is actually bright red in its natural color, but other ingredients are used to produce the many different colors you’ll see atop maki sushi rolls. For example, yuzu can be used to color the roe yellow, and squid ink to color the roe black.
Tobiko isn’t just a garnish either. It is also served as sushi or sashimi or added to other dishes such as salads. The fish eggs have a crunch that also adds texture to maki rolls and other dishes and exhibit a salty, smoky, and slightly sweet flavor.
Masago: Smelt Roe
Often confused with tobiko, masago is similar in color and size. A trained eye will notice that masago eggs are just a tiny bit smaller than tobiko. The taste also gives it away—the fish eggs aren’t as crunchy as tobiko, and they are slightly more bitter.
Masago comes from the capelin, a fish that is part of the smelt family. Many sushi restaurants often use masago in place of tobiko (or try to pass it off as tobiko) because it is much less expensive than the flying fish roe. However, both tobiko and masago are mainly relegated to garnishes in upscale Japanese and sushi restaurants. In fact, they are not often sold on their own, whereas Ikura (salmon roe) is considered as higher-end fish roe.
Ikura: Large, Pretty, and Nutritious
You can easily distinguish salmon roe in comparison to masago and tobiko because the fish eggs are noticeably larger and shinier. They look like small, reddish-orange, and slightly translucent marbles.
Ikura exhibits a bold, rich flavor, and can be salty, sweet, or a combination of both depending on how it was cured or marinated. It isn’t really used as a garnish, either. Instead, it is often served on top of a small amount of sushi rice and wrapped in crisp nori seaweed.
Uni: Not Exactly Roe
Uni doesn’t look at all like the above fish eggs, and it isn’t exactly roe either, though many consider it the roe of the sea urchin. In fact, it is the roe-producing organs of the sea urchin and is a tasty treat with a distinctive flavor that you should definitely try if you enjoy sushi.
Uni is always shipped fresh, never frozen, and resembles a yellow-orange piece of fish. It exhibits a buttery texture and slightly fishy taste akin to lobster or oysters. It can be served as nigiri or sashimi but is also used in a wide variety of other Japanese dishes.
Kazunoko: Herring Roe
Kazunoko is also very different in appearance from masago or tobiko. Its roe almost appears as thick slices of citrus fruit, with vibrant yellowish-orange color. Kazunoko is slightly firm to the touch and exhibits a mild seafood flavor. In Japan, it is traditionally served with rice or on its own as a favorite New Year’s dish.
Mentaiko: Pollack Roe
Pollack roe appears as a thick, reddish-orange piece of fish and has numerous culinary applications. It can be served atop rice, mixed with pasta sauces, added to salads or omelets, and even in a sandwich! It is soft and has a bold, seafood taste.
One of the more popular types of roe consumed in Japan, it is also sold in a variety of flavors to suit different tastes. Pollack roe is also easier to find outside of Japanese and Asian groceries. Many health food stores and specialty supermarkets sell these versatile fish eggs.
Try Some Fish Roe!
It can be quite worthwhile to seek out and try some or all of the above types of fish roe. While some of them may take some getting used to because of the different tastes and textures, they are all very healthy. You may find a new favorite dish to order the next time you go out for sushi!
Additionally, you’ll likely find all of the above at Asian supermarkets, and you’ll find plenty of recipes to try sampling each one in a new dish (or on its own as nigiri or sashimi). Experiment and enjoy it!