Tobiko & Masago
What are Tobiko and Masago?
Tobiko is one of the most prized sushi roe (as in “caviar”) in Japanese cuisine, valued as a finishing touch and garnish to rolls as well as enjoyed on its own by true lovers of the dish. This wonderfully crunchy and slightly sweet roe is the eggs of tropical flying fish, which are known for their ability to leap into the air at speeds of over 40 mph. It adds a splash of color and its unmistakable crunchy texture to many different rolls, including the popular California roll. If you eat sushi regularly, it is a good bet you have enjoyed tobiko in your life.
The bright-red natural hues of tobiko are in contrast to its mild taste, which is slightly sweet and salty. It is most often added to rolls not simply for its taste, but because of its consistently crunchy texture and bright appearance. There is little more satisfying than the fun crunch of biting into tobiko. Those who love tobiko most enjoy the dish as a nigiri item, piling the roe on top of sushi rice. While tobiko is prized for its use in sushi, it is a versatile ingredient in other cuisine. Tobiko can be enjoyed on crackers, in omelets, or on salads for example.
Nutritionally, tobiko is loaded with protein, vitamins, and essential omega-3 fatty acids. In spite of this, tobiko should be eaten in moderation because of its high cholesterol content. As tobiko is often used as a garnish, the levels of cholesterol are not usually worrisome as part of a balanced diet.
Masago is the roe of the capelin, an Atlantic and Arctic fish. Perhaps the tropical sun is needed to give tobiko roe its bright color, as masago is dull and usually dyed before it is eaten to give it a more pleasing appearance.
Oddly, while capelin is perfectly edible and is similar to sardines, it is is mostly used to create other seafood products, including masago. Approximately 80% of harvested capelin is used to produce fishmeal for the farmed seafood industry and fish oil products (for those who take omega-3 supplements), while the remaining 20% is used to produce masago.
While masago shares a similar taste to tobiko, it lacks the same distinctive crunch and is in general a more boring and less versatile ingredient than tobiko in sushi cuisine. This has not stopped many sushi restaurants from substituting masago for tobiko because of one big difference between the two roe as masago is noticeably cheaper than tobiko.
Tobiko is viewed as a higher quality product than masago, but this has not stopped restaurants from substituting the two to help their bottom line. Tobiko is also slightly larger than masago. If you want to enjoy tobiko, it can be purchased on its own from sushi retailers (you can easily find it if you have a Japanese grocery store near you) to make sure you are getting the crunchy sweetness you are looking for. It is also a high quality food, and as it is low on the food chain, capelin and its roe, masago, has a very low mercury content, a concern of those with a heavy seafood diet. It is also a great source of selenium, a critical micronutrient (trace mineral) that many people lack in their diet, as well as vitamin B12.
It is also a great source of high quality protein. While it may be small, masago has a significant amount of protein relative to its size. A single 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of the roe contains 6 grams of high quality protein, about the same as one large (50-gram) chicken egg. Not bad for something relatively inexpensive with a fun texture and flavor.
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