Of all the types of fish roe you can buy, ikura has a big and bold reputation, with a bit of controversy for good measure.
Ikura is considered a delicacy by many, but it’s really quite accessible and versatile, which makes it something that everyone should experience on their own culinary journeys.
You’d likely recognize ikura if served to you on a plate, but in this article, we’re getting into the details that you should know before taking that first bite.
We’ll talk about the origins of ikura, the taste and texture of this ingredient, how it’s used in culinary arts, while also dispelling a few myths that might persist about ikura.
Here’s your go-to guide for all things ikura:
Ikura Definition and Background
Learning about ikura is more than just doing a taste test at your local Japanese restaurant or buying a tin to try at home.
Let’s find out about where ikura comes from, how it’s produced, the different varieties available, and how it stacks up to other types of fish roe that it’s often confused with.
Origins of Ikura
“Ikura” is a Japanese word meaning the “roe of salmon,” characterized by large, plump, orange eggs.
While we usually think of Japanese cuisine as having a long and storied history, Ikura is rather new on the scene, originating in the latter half of the 20th century.
This is because salmon is not native to Japan and therefore must be imported from other corners of the world. Remember this when eating salmon at your favorite Japanese restaurant—it’s a recent addition to the culinary canon of Japan.
With regard to ikura specifically, the ingredient was welcomed with open arms by Japanese sushi chefs and other culinary creatives during the 1980s.
Nowadays, we don’t even think twice about eating ikura in the context of Japanese cuisine. Plus, we enjoy this ingredient in many other styles of cooking as well.
The process of ikura production starts with procuring the egg pouch inside the belly of the salmon, which requires a steady hand and delicate technique.
Eggs from the salmon are removed from the fish but appear as a single object that must be treated in a mild, warm saline solution before eggs are separated and rinsed.
This process takes time and is rather labor-intensive, with a slim margin for error. For this reason, it is a task reserved for the most highly trained chefs at a restaurant. It is difficult to scale in larger industrial settings.
This gives ikura more of an artisanal look and feel, in addition to its delicious flavors and textures.
Still, ikura is rather affordable compared to the higher-tier fish roe and caviar products on the market.
The price does depend on the type of salmon from which the roe is harvested, of course. Pink salmon ikura will be more affordable than the more elusive chum salmon ikura and luxurious coho and king salmon varieties.
With that said, it’s not uncommon to find 500g of quality ikura for under $100, giving you a lot of volume to work with at a reasonable price point.
Ikura vs. Tobiko and Masago
The “big three” fish roes of Japanese cuisine are often mixed up, with ikura getting caught up in the fray.
To the untrained eye, ikura, tobiko, and masago might look similar, but there are many key differences that impact how these ingredients taste and their proper use.
The giveaway here is size, and ikura is the biggest of the bunch.
Masago, which comes from capelin and is known for its crunch, consists of very small, bright orange eggs. Tobiko, which comes from the flying fish, is slightly larger than masago. Tokibo features more of a “pop” on the palette as opposed to a crunch.
Finally, ikura is noticeably bigger than its two cousins and has a distinctive flavor that sets it apart from the rest.
Ikura Taste, Texture, and Characteristics
Now that we have the basics of ikura well understood, it’s time to talk about the fun stuffÚ taste, texture, and the distinctive features that make this type of roe so desirable and delicious.
While many types of fish roe feature singular flavors and lots of salt, ikura has a lot more depth, offering a more complex and interesting experience on the palette.
The key term here is umami, which is one of the five core receptor types on our taste buds. It is most easily described as “savory,” which is typical of aged cheeses, cured meats, mushrooms, teas, and other favorites.
Umami is plentiful in ikura, but you will also find a signature sweetness, with hints of salt and a bold fishy flavor that makes this ingredient more divisive than others.
Flavors will vary depending on the type of salmon, seasonality, and other factors. Try a wide range of ikura products to see which ones you like best.
If you’re only familiar with tobiko and masago, ikura offers something brand new in terms of texture. Since these eggs are quite large with a firm exterior membrane, you will quickly realize that the bursting sensation of eating ikura is the main attraction for many.
This may be unfamiliar to those who are experiencing fish roe for the first time, but they may soon learn to love the unique feeling and blast of flavor that comes with eating ikura.
How Is Ikura Used in Cuisine?
Ikura has many uses in Japanese cuisine, whether it’s featured as a standalone sushi item or as a component of more complex dishes.
The purest way to sample ikura is in a simple seaweed wrap with a foundation of sticky rice and a scoop of salmon roe on top. This showcases the flavor of the ikura while offering a canvas of different textures to enhance the experience.
Chefs may also use ikura in salads, soups, or in contrast to cooked meat and other items. Since it’s rather affordable and resilient, ikura makes its way to many corners of the menu, even beyond the Japanese sushi and steakhouse scene.
Ikura vs. Caviar—Key Differences
Ikura and caviar are often compared, but the differences between the two ingredients are notable.
Taste and Texture
Eating ikura can be fun and memorable, but the quality of flavors and textures are rather limited compared to the exquisite experience of authentic sturgeon caviar.
The best caviars offer more diverse flavors, richer palette-coating texture and should be enjoyed with minimal distraction from other ingredients and accouterments.
Price and Availability
Ikura has the advantage of being more affordable; with real caviar, it’s truly a matter of quality over quantity.
Thankfully, the world’s best caviar is more accessible than ever due to sustainable aquaculture practices and direct shipping methods from trusted vendors online.
Find the Right Roe for You
If you haven’t yet given ikura a try, we urge you to check it off your list. It’s a beloved ingredient and deserving of the praise it receives.
Just remember that nothing compares to real sturgeon caviar, so make sure to have that special tin ready for your next celebration.