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What is Tobiko? Differences Between Tobiko and Caviar

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The vibrant colors, the mesmerizing pearls, the signature crunch — tobiko is a delicacy that appeals to all the senses. Though you may have encountered it many times before — in tobiko sushi rolls, on top of rice or as a sashimi garnish — what exactly is tobiko, and what makes it special?

Below, we examine the unique characteristics and qualities of natural tobiko and explain what sets it apart from other styles of roe. Then, we detail a side-by-side comparison of tobiko and caviar, showing the differences and similarities between the two elegant and delicious ingredients. No more waiting — let's talk tobiko.

What is Tobiko Made of?

What Is Tobiko Made Of?

Put simply, tobiko is a type of fish roe and is specifically from flying fish roe. There are many varieties of flying fish that yield quality tobiko, found in the Northern Atlantic around Iceland and even in certain regions of the West Indies. However, tobiko is most commonly harvested from Cheilopogon agoo, commonly known as the Japanese flying fish.

Producing tobiko is similar to other styles of roe — harvesters collect the unfertilized eggs from the female fish, remove any impurities that are present and salt cure the roe to imbue a smoky flavor while preserving them for longer shelf life. This is part of what gives roe its salty taste and crunchy texture.

Like most roe, tobiko should be kept in a tight-sealed container just above freezing point. The eggs themselves are small, usually less than 1 millimeter in diameter. If you were to eat just one at a time, you'd barely register the texture or taste. That's why tobiko is usually scooped in large quantities and enjoyed best with dozens of eggs in a single bite.

When shopping for tobiko, you'll come across a variety of colors. A unique aspect of tobiko is its ability to take on different flavors, so it's often cured, dyed and flavored with extra ingredients. Naturally, tobiko is a bright red-orange color with a slightly citrusy flavor, though chefs who use tobiko in their dishes can infuse it with many other components that consequently change its color:

  • Green tobiko: This tobiko has been infused with wasabi to give it a spicier and sharper flavor than usual. A common way to create green tobiko is to cure and flavor it with sugar, salt, mirin, soy sauce, sake vinegar and dashi. Often, food dye is also used to create a more pronounced color.
  • Black tobiko: When you eat black tobiko, you experience a pronounced nutty umami flavor, which comes from the squid ink that also turns it into a deep shade of black. To help create that interesting black color, some chefs may also use blue, red and yellow food dye.
  • Yellow tobiko: Adding some citrus fruits to tobiko, such as yuzu, will help give it a bright color and flavor. For a more distinct yellow tone, chefs might use a bit of yellow food dye, as well.
  • Red tobiko: A portion of red tobiko can get its color from different ingredients, the most popular being chilis or beets. If you eat tobiko infused with chilis, you can expect a hot and spicy flavor profile. On the other hand, beets will give it a milder, slightly sweet taste.
  • Golden tobiko: If you're most interested in fresh, quality tobiko, golden tobiko will be the best option. This variety of tobiko is only cured with salt and is absent of any food dye or extra ingredients, giving it a slightly briny flavor.

The kind of tobiko you come across at a restaurant will depend on the dish you order, as the tobiko will be a complement to that dish — not the main attraction.

Related Types of Roe

Note that tobiko is just one type of roe used in Japanese cuisine, and its size, color and texture may cause some confusion with the other major varieties used in certain Japanese dishes. Here are a couple of "cousins" of tobiko to explain further:

  • Masago: These eggs, which are smelt roe or capelin roe, are even smaller than those of tobiko. The main difference between masago and tobiko is that masago's texture tends to be less pleasant, perhaps a bit more grainy or sandy, with fewer notable flavors. Many people cite masago as somewhat bitter compared to tobiko. Like tobiko, masago can come in various colors and flavors when cured and dyed a certain way.
  • Ikura: Ikura eggs, which are salmon roe, are larger and sweeter, coming in a distinct orange color. These beads can be felt individually on the palate and deliver that exciting "pop" between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. Ikura is popular in Russian cuisine as much as it is in Japanese foods.

When it comes to nutrition, tobiko and its relatives are surprisingly high quality despite being low in calories. These roes are known to pack an impressive amount of protein and healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, although sodium and high cholesterol content would likely prevent someone from eating them at every meal. In moderation, tobiko roe includes vitamins, minerals and nutrients that make it a welcome addition to any plate.

The next time you sit down to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, keep an eye on the different types of crunchy roe that arrive on your plate. The best way to discover their unique qualities is through first-hand experience.

Culinary Applications of Tobiko

Culinary Applications

In general, tobiko has numerous applications in the culinary world. Its smooth, creamy texture and slightly sweet and smoky flavor make it the ideal pairing for savory, salty dishes. While you can find it used in more creative ways, such as in risotto or omelets, the most common use of tobiko is in Japanese cuisine.

If you've eaten sushi lately, you'll likely know about the central role tobiko plays. That monumental crunch is the definitive feature of tobiko, which works perfectly in contrast to the smooth and creamy textures in each bite of nigiri or maki — sometimes, you'll even find it on its own in a maki roll in what's called tobiko gunkan maki. This variety of sushi comes in an oval shape meant to resemble a ship, or gunkan. 

Essentially, you wrap seaweed around a small portion of white rice, placing the tobiko on top of the rice. Sometimes, people will add a quail egg yolk for a unique and elegant touch.

In terms of flavor, tobiko offers a signature smokiness that pairs well with the fresh fish, sushi rice, nori, salads and vegetables in many sushi dishes. Those who enjoy sushi know that it comes in a variety of styles, meaning the many kinds of tobiko serve as an excellent addition to sushi meals. When it comes to sushi rolls, tobiko is typically sprinkled onto the outer layer of rice on a California roll. This is several people's first introduction to tobiko.

Further, tobiko is also present in sashimi dishes. This kind of sushi is simple yet delectable, consisting of thinly sliced strips of raw fish, which is most often served with a side of soy sauce for dipping and might feature tobiko presented on top of sliced avocado or a similar ingredient. This way, you can add a bit of tobiko to each bite of the sashimi.

Keep in mind that you might not want to eat tobiko on its own — the ingredient is simply not complex enough to warrant a solo scoop. It works much better as a supporting actor in the broader context of a meal. Still, its ability to wondrously complement your favorite Japanese foods is something to remember when you order your next plate of sashimi. Depending on the color of tobiko you're served, you can expect to enjoy a flavorful addition to your meal.

Tobiko vs. Caviar

How does tobiko match up to caviar? To put it simply, caviar is in a different dimension altogether, and true connoisseurs wouldn't entertain the comparison to tobiko. To be fair, the two ingredients are indeed both in the broad category of fish eggs, but that's where the similarities begin and end. What is the difference between tobiko and caviar?

The latter is the highly exclusive salt-cured roe of the sturgeon species, including majestic fish such as beluga, kaluga, sevruga and a handful of other family members. These animals are rare and large and must be fully mature before their eggs can be harvested. It can take more than 10 years for a female sturgeon to yield quality caviar. On top of that, it takes a high degree of skill and patience to successfully harvest and process caviar. The eggs must be treated with extreme care, and the curing process is equally precise.

When caviar hits the plate — more accurately, the mother-of-pearl spoon — it delivers an incredible range of unique flavors and textures that can be best summarized as luxurious. The pearls are big and shiny, conveying distinctive colors and patterns ranging from steely gray and bronze to earthy greens and gold.

That's why caviar is traditionally served with minimal additions and a clean, dry white wine or champagne. If you've ever attended a caviar tasting, you'll know how it captures the attention of everyone in the room. In other words, you don't just eat caviar — you savor it.

Don't think tobiko isn't without its time and place — simply recognize that caviar is something entirely unique and exquisite.

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As you might have gathered, tobiko and caviar are in different categories when it comes to taste, texture, exclusivity and price. The experience of eating caviar is completely unique and closer to enjoying a glass of fine wine, whiskey or a cigar — years of cultivation and careful production are required to make the final product, and the fruits should be enjoyed with equal appreciation.

If you're intrigued by tobiko or salmon roe, you owe it to yourself to try an exquisite and luxurious spread of caviar, as well. Imperia Caviar sources from eco-friendly aqua farms, and you can have our caviar selection delivered right to your door for phenomenal prices. One taste is all it takes with Imperia Caviar.

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Last Updated 9/8/22

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