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Tobiko can be infused with different flavors, resulting in color changes. (Photo: Joe Bielawa/Flickr.)

Sit down for a sushi dinner and chances are you’ll encounter some type of fish roe during your meal.

Whether 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 or sprinkled generously on top of various sushi rolls, fish roe has a number of uses in Japanese cuisine. Like other types of eggs, fish roe is high in vitamins and protein, as well as cholesterol. Those familiar with the foodstuff might be aware that there are three types of fish roe most frequently used in sushi establishments.

Feeling a bit lost? Allow us to explain.

Delphine Sindynata
Tobiko has a distinct crunch to it. (Photo: Delphine Sindynata/Flickr.)

Tobiko (flying fish roe)

Perhaps the most recognized among the different varieties is tobiko, flying fish roe. Ranging from 0.5 to 0.8 millimeters in size, the naturally red-orange eggs have a mild smoky or salty taste, with a note of sweetness and an especially crunchy texture. Tobiko can be infused with other natural ingredients to change its color and flavor. Common variations include squid ink to make it black, yuzu to make it yellow, beet to make it red and wasabi to make it green. In addition to adorning maki rolls (such as California), tobiko is often eaten as sushi or sashimi, where it can be served in a cucumber cup or avocado half.

Geoff Peters
Similarly colored to tobikomasago is clumpy in texture due to its smaller size. (Photo: Geoff Peters/Flickr.)

Masago (smelt roe)

Often confused with tobiko by the untrained eye, masago consists of eggs from the capelin, a fish in the smelt family. Masago is similarly colored to tobiko, but the eggs are visibly smaller and the mouthfeel somewhat different — masago is not as pleasantly crunchy. The taste is similar, though masago can be slightly more bitter. Sushi restaurants have been known to substitute masago for tobiko, sometimes trying to pass off the former as the latter. Why? “Tobiko is a lot more expensive,” explains Masashi Ito, head chef of New York’s Sushi Zo, currently one of the city’s hottest restaurants. He adds that both “masago and tobiko are mostly used for decoration” in high-end sushi restaurants. You won’t find too many upscale places serving these pieces on their own.

Photo: Kojach on Flickr.
Larger than tobiko and masago, ikura has a bit more of a nuanced taste, described as “like the ocean.” (Photo: Kojach/Flickr.)

Ikura (salmon roe)

Ikura is notably larger than both tobiko and masago, and its appearance can accurately be described as “small orange balls.” It is gooey in texture and quite delicate — handle an egg with a little too much force and you risk puncturing it and spilling briny, slightly sweet liquid. Chef Ito receives his ikura frozen from Alaska and cures it with salt to preserve it. He serves the delicacy fresh, however, when it is in season in May and June. Ikura is most often consumed while wrapped in crisp seaweed on top of sushi rice, though it can also be enjoyed as sashimi and is the only one of these three types of roe to have a culinary presence outside of Japanese cuisine. Salmon roe can be substituted in lieu of more traditional — and extravagantly expensive — black “caviar,” and it is served with blinis and sour cream in several countries, including the U.S.