You’ve probably seen tobiko in almost every Japanese restaurant menu, ate it, yet still don’t know what it is. 

What is tobiko?

Tobiko on a wooden spoon.

Tobiko (飛び子), though known as the “poor man’s caviar”, is a prized salt-cured roe from flying fish, and it’s commonly used in Japanese cuisine as a garnish on sushi and other rice dishes. It adds colour, texture and flavour to any dish. Although orange tobiko is most often used, other colours are also available.

Texture and flavour

The crunchy, tiny spheres pop in your mouth, releasing smoky, briny flavour that’s a little sweet.

How is tobiko different from masago, ikura and caviar?

All of them are fish eggs and lends saltiness to any food that you add them to, though they still can be distinguished by their flavours and textures.

Masago: Roe of capelin

Masago capelin roe

Of all the fish eggs listed, masago is the cheapest of all. It is sometimes used in place of tobiko in Japanese cuisine, especially in cheaper restaurants.

It can be distinguished by its smaller size and duller colour. It also lacks the crunch that tobiko has and is slightly more bitter.

Ikura: Roe of salmon

Ikura salmon roe

Ikura is much larger than other roes. It is very slightly sticky in texture and lacks the crunch that tobiko has.

Caviar: Roe of sturgeon

Caviar sturgeon roe

Caviar is distinct in appearance – it’s most commonly black and occasionally amber or green. Out of the roes mentioned, caviar’s saltiness would remind you most of the sea.

How is tobiko made?

The eggs of flying fish are harvested, then immediately processed with salt, flavourings and colour.

Tobiko is, by default, pale yellow in colour and has little flavour. The additional processing produces five common colours and flavours:

  • Orange: The de-facto colour of tobiko that is ready for consumption, usually mildly smoky and salty in flavour.
  • Red: Coloured by beet, usually spicy in flavour.
  • Green: Wasabi flavour.
  • Yellow: Coloured by yuzu, a type of Japanese citrus but usually tastes of ginger.
  • Black: Coloured by squid ink, usually a little sweet and salty.

Not all are naturally dyed though. Many of them are processed with food dyes.

How to use tobiko?

Think of using it as a garnish that adds crunch and saltiness to your food and you’re in the right direction.

You can even mix it up with various roes in a sushi:

Tobiko and ikura roe sushi

Apart from using it as a topping for sushi and other rice dishes, you can put it over canapes, pasta, salads or pair it with cold tofu, eggs, smoked salmon, scallops, lobster and avocados.

How would you use it? Let us know in the comments below!