What is Tobiko?

What is Tobiko?

Nov 22, 2023 Tags 

Tobiko (とびこ) is the Japanese word for flying fish roe, specifically tiny eggs harvested from flying fish. They usually come in shades of orange or red and are mostly used as a garnish for sushi. Tobiko has a rich history, and it has been enjoyed for centuries. This delicacy is a popular topping because it adds a burst of color and flavor to traditional dishes.

In Japan, fish eggs are a delicacy, so Tobiko is interchanged with other types of fish eggs like Masago and Ikura. If you have been looking for that extra razzle dazzle to spice up your meals, fish eggs might be perfect for you. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about Tobiko and how it differs from other types of fish roe. 




Tobiko is known for its mild brininess, a characteristic that aligns with its oceanic origins. When you bite into a tiny bead of Tobiko, you'll immediately experience a delicate saltiness. The individual beads of Tobiko pop gently when you bite into them, releasing their delicate flavor. Many people call this the "pop," which is a defining characteristic of Tobiko. If your fish eggs don’t pop, its not Tobiko.




There are different flying fish species in Japan. Obviously, their eggs would vary, too. Tobiko is very small eggs, usually less than 1 millimeter in diameter, but there are differences in colors and even taste depending on the type of fish it is harvested from and the time of harvest.

Generally, fresh Tobiko can be cured in salt and eaten, which gives it a light orange-golden color. However, several spices and preservatives are added to commercialize Tobiko to give it a different look and taste. These are the different types of Tobiko you may encounter.




Orange Tobiko


This type of Tobiko is the most popular type harvested from flying fish in their natural state. It may be lightly seasoned with soy sauce, bonito extract, and mirin.




Red Tobiko


Tobiko turns red when it is naturally tinted with beet. It is popularly used as sushi or sashimi toppings. It is popular both in Japan and in Western countries.




Black Tobiko


When Tobiko is mixed with squid ink, it turns black. This technique of dying the Tobiko improves the taste because squid ink has a salty taste, which people describe as “tasting like the sea.” Naturally, black Tobiko has this unique taste, and it can be a duplicate for caviar, which is a pricier fish roe of the same color. 




Green Tobiko


Sometimes, Tobiko is infused with natural flavors such as wasabi, which will not only change the taste but also the color, making it green. Wasabi is known for that fiery, spicy kick that can clear up sinuses in seconds. Mixed with Tobiko, it becomes a green, hot condiment. 




Yellow Tobiko


This is the name used to refer to yuzu-flavored Tobiko. Yuzu is a very common citrus fruit in Japan, similar to orange. It is used for many Japanese drinks and snack flavors because of its unique orange-lemon taste. Tobiko is dyed yellow using food coloring when it is yuzu flavored to make it easy to recognize. 




Tobiko's vivid colors and delicate texture make it a prized ingredient in both traditional and contemporary cuisine. Here are some ways Tobiko is used in the culinary world:




Sushi Rolls with Tobiko


Tobiko is a popular topping for sushi because it adds a burst of color and flavor to the iconic Japanese dish. Apart from being used on top of sushi rolls, it can also be used for Inside-out sushi rolls, known as uramaki. Tobiko is stuck on the exterior of sushi rolls. The colorful fish eggs add a satisfying crunch to each bite.




Sashimi with Tobiko


Thin slices of sashimi, such as raw tuna or salmon, are sometimes garnished with a sprinkle of Tobiko, elevating the dish's presentation.




Nigiri with Tobiko


Nigiri is a Japanese meal that literally means two fingers. It consists of thinly sliced raw fish placed on top of vinegared rice. It is meant to be dipped into soy sauce because eaten with fingers. Sometimes, Tobiko is placed on top of Nigiri for a more complex flavor.




Tobiko is not the only Japanese fish roe used as toppings in meals. In fact, it is usually mistaken for Masago, Ikura, and Ebiko. In this section, we will explain the difference between these fish roe and how you can spot them.






Masago is as common as Tobiko; however, there are many differences. Masago comes from smelt fish, which are small fishes. Obviously, the fish egg is also smaller than Tobiko, and it has a slightly bitter taste and a completely different texture compared to Tobiko.

One reason masago is popular is that it is less expensive than Tobiko, so it can be used as a replacement. It also has the same bright orange look, so you can find it on sushi and sashimi as well. 






Also known as shrimp or prawn roe, Ebiko is less expensive than Tobiko and can be used as a replacement for sushi rolls. Its natural color is a dull orange, which is not as bright as Tobiko, but it is dyed with food coloring when sold commercially. One noteworthy difference lies in its texture—the eggs tend to clump together, resulting in a creamy consistency that lacks the satisfying crunch of Tobiko. 






While Tobiko is larger than masago, it is smaller than Ikura. Ikura is salmon roe/ eggs. As you may have guessed, it is the most expensive of the three types of Japanese roe. It is so large that when you eat it, it tastes a bit gooey and squishy. They are beautiful, shiny, bubbly orange-red balls that have a slightly salty taste. It is used for sushi and can be marinated in soy sauce or sweetened for a richer flavor. 




Tobiko can be found in Japanese grocery stores, seafood markets, and even some online retailers. When shopping for Tobiko, consider the following:

  • Freshness: Opt for fresh Tobiko with a clean, briny aroma. Avoid any off-putting odors or discolorations.
  • Packaging: Tobiko is typically available in small jars or plastic containers. Check for intact seals and proper packaging to ensure freshness.

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This article was originally written by our freelance writer Umm-Kulthum Abdulkareem and edited by us.