What is tobiko?
We’re all familiar with caviar, but tobiko is the equally trendy yet more affordable alternative to the gourmet topping. Tobiko, in its most basic definition, is fish roe (eggs). Specifically, it is flying fish roe, and tobiko is the Japanese word for it. Culinarily it is mostly used in sushi dishes, and the eggs are on the larger side - about 0.5 to 0.8mm, and reddish-orange in colour with a salty and sometimes smokey flavour that is crunchy and pops in the mouth. Tobiko is occasionally dyed to give it a black, pale yellow, or green colour. It often shows up on California rolls or as an accompaniment to sashimi.
Tobiko is similar to other fish roes like masago and caviar, although all are from different fish. Masago is generally considered to be of a lesser quality and cheaper, whilst caviar would be the most expensive; tobiko falls in the middle. The flying fish roe must be processed (usually salt-cured) in order to give it salt and flavour, as it doesn’t taste like much when initially harvested. As with all fish roe, tobiko is a good source of protein, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids, and is low in calories. However, it is also high in cholesterol, so you will want to moderate your consumption.
When is it used?
Tobiko is most commonly used as a topping for sushi, sashimi, and as a garnish for other raw Japanese fish dishes. Tobiko and masago - the roe of the capelin fish - are often used interchangeably. However, masago tends to be duller in colour and is thus frequently dyed. Masago eggs are also smaller and have the appearance of sand, and don't have the same crunch as tobiko. Tobiko also shouldn’t be confused with the larger ikura, or salmon roe, which is generally known as the “Japanese caviar.” You can find tobiko in most Japanese or well-stocked Asian grocery stores, sold in small containers. You can store it in your fridge and simply take a spoonful out when you want to use it.
For a less conventional but equally delicious usage, you can use tobiko as a garnish for any savoury dish - try it on top of rice dishes, omelettes, blinis, salads, fishcakes, or even served with cheese and crackers for an extra salty hit. Or, add it to soups - tobiko holds its shape when placed in liquids, so you wouldn’t have to worry about it dissolving.
What does it taste like?
Unsurprisingly, tobiko’s primary flavour profile is salty with a subtle sweetness. It’s fairly similar to seaweed, although the texture is obviously quite different, in that both are reminiscent of the sea. Tobiko is also lightly smoky, most likely due to the way it has been processed.
What is black tobiko?
Black tobiko is just tobiko that’s been dyed with squid ink to give it a black appearance. There are other colours it can be dyed to as well - beetroot for red, wasabi for green, and yuzu citrus for a paler, yellow-orange tobiko. To colour the eggs, they’re usually just infused with the additional ingredients until the colour has penetrated. This also imparts some of the flavours of the other ingredients too, so green tobiko will have a spicy kick. You won’t find blue tobiko, although there is such a thing as blue caviar, the roe from wild scampi harvested in Australia. Indeed, different types of fish roe exist all over the world, enriching and enhancing numerous dishes across the globe.