Tobiko vs. Masago: Differences and Similarities

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If you have enjoyed sushi or sashimi before, you have certainly sampled roes (eggs). They are brilliant garnishes for these meals, thanks to their vibrant colors and crisp texture.

There are a plethora of roe types, including Masago, Tobiko, Uni, Kazunoko, Ebiko, and Mentaiko. Among them, Masago vs Tobiko forms the most frequently misunderstood pair.

Despite their notable differences in many aspects, Tobiko and Masago are often used interchangeably in Japanese cuisine. This article will dissect all dissimilarities between this popular pair and turn you into an expert on Tobiko and Masago.

What is Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe)?

What Is Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe)
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In Japanese, Tobiko is the short form for “Tobiuo No Ko”, meaning flying fish roe. The term refers to fish eggs collected from flying fish, including Japanese flying fish (Cheilopogon agoo).

Flying fish mainly inhabit tropical and subtropical seas. They consume zooplankton (aquatic microorganisms) and can glide through the air at over 40 miles per hour to avoid predators.

Tobiko’s Appearance

Naturally, their eggs are fairly small in size (ranging from 0.5 to 0.8 millimeters) and reddish-orange in color. Yet, you will find Tobiko available in the market in various hues, including black, green, yellow, and red.

Tobiko’s Taste And Texture

Tobiko is unique for its somewhat salty, sweet, and zesty flavor. In some cases, the use of dashi to preserve Tobiko and other curing ingredients (like sake and mirin) impart various tastes to the flying fish roe, such as a faint smokiness or slight sourness.

Regarding texture, Tobiko eggs possess a satisfying pop and a pleasant crunch whenever you bite them.

Notable Tobiko Variants

The most popular way to distinguish different Tobiko variants is by color. You can alter their appearance and flavor by introducing additional ingredients to the flying fish roes. Here are the most notable variants you should look out for when shopping for Tobiko:

  • Orange Tobiko: With a sweet, salty, and lemony flavor, Orange Tobiko is the most popular form of commercially processed flying fish roe. It is prominent in the West due to the frequent appearance on California rolls.
  • Golden Tobiko: Typically, Golden Tobiko refers to flying fish roes of superior quality and freshness, achieved via the conventional ingredients and preservatives. It has a milder taste profile than commercial alternatives.
  • Black Tobiko: Squid ink contributes to the Black Tobiko’s unique appearance. This translucent flying fish roe type has a light bitter and nutty flavor, with a touch more umami and octopus-like taste than commercial versions.
  • Green Tobiko: Also known as Wasabi Tobiko, this flying fish roe type is spicy due to the use of wasabi. Besides the flavor, Green Tobiko is similar in texture to other flying fish roe types.
  • Yellow Tobiko: Yellow Tobiko stands out with its vivid hue acquired from food coloring. It is flavored with yuzu (a citrus fruit originating in East Asia) and other citrus varieties.
  • Red Tobiko: Besides food dyes, Red Tobiko gets its crimson hue from beets or chilies. Should the latter be used, Red Tobiko will have a relatively spicy taste.

Tobiko’s Nutritional Values

Consuming Tobiko offers many health benefits. The ingredient is rich in protein, vitamins, phospholipid fats, and omega-3 acids. These nutrients help decrease inflammation, improve cognitive functions, and protect your liver and heart.

However, Tobiko is high in cholesterol. Since people serve the flying fish roe as a garnish, overindulgence is seldom a concern. All in all, Tobiko is still an ideal addition to your diet.

Tobiko’s Culinary Uses

Cooks prefer using Tobiko as a final touch on many sushi rolls (maki). In certain upscale Japanese restaurants, chefs often wrap it in nori over sushi rice and serve it as a garnish for donburi and sashimi.

Tobiko’s Culinary Uses
Credit: @tobikorestaurant

Besides, you can serve Tobiko on crackers, salads, omelets, and other delectable dishes. The crisp texture and colorful hue make it a versatile element to incorporate in various cuisines other than sushi.

What is Masago (Smelt Roe)?

What Is Masago (Smelt Roe)
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If Tobiko refers to flying fish roe, Masago is the Japanese word for roe of smelt. Fishermen harvest smelt roe mainly from capelin fish, a tiny forage species inhabiting the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

In Japan, the Hokkaido-native smelt species named Shishamo (Spirinchus lanceolatus) is the primary source of Masago eggs. Local people often call it Shishamoko.

Masago’s Appearance

Masago is a soft, small, and translucent fish roe with a relatively vibrant hue. It is indeed one of the tiniest roes, about 1 millimeter in diameter. This miniature size explains its name’s meaning, which is “sand”. After harvesting, Masago has a faint orange hue.

Thus, before hitting the market, the smelt roe must be colored. The most common Masago hues are black, red, and orange.

Masago’s Taste And Texture

Masago’s tiny size gives this ingredient a delicate, sand-like texture. Its flavor is salty and lemony, with a punch of bitterness, making it more of a garnish than the eye-catching focus of a sushi roll or sashimi. It is

Masago’s Nutritional Values

Like Tobiko, Masago also provides you with several health advantages. The smelt roe is exceptionally low in calories, fat, and mercury content. In addition, it is rich in omega-3 acids, vitamin B-12, and selenium (an antioxidant that fights cancer).

However, Masago has high salt content, up to 10 percent of your daily intake in just one tablespoon. Thus, consume Masago in moderation!

Popular Masago Types

Similar to Tobiko, Masago also has various commercial types. The primary difference among them is the food coloring utilized. Here are the most popular Masago types:

  • Orange Masago: This Masago type is the most prevalent and appears on many Japanese restaurants’ menus. It is delicately sweet and salty in taste.
  • Black Masago: Black Masago closely resembles Black Tobiko in appearance. Yet, there is no squid ink in this Masago type. Its taste profile is not too flavorful.
  • Red Masago: This Masago type is akin to Orange Masago in flavor.
  • Green Masago: Green Masago achieves its special color from yellow and blue food colorings. It is flavored with horseradish or wasabi.

Masago’s Culinary Uses

Thanks to its sticky and crisp characteristics, chefs prefer Masago as the topping for sushi and sashimi meals to enhance their color and taste.

Masago’s Culinary Uses
Credit: @the_photo_foodie

You can also sprinkle Masago over rice bowl, spaghetti, and any dish requiring crunchy texture. It is the key ingredient in making Masago sauce as well.

Masago vs Tobiko: Comprehensive Comparison

Besides having high nutritional benefits and sharing similar culinary uses, Masago and Tobiko have many subtle differences in various aspects. So let’s find out how one differs from the other.

Criteria Masago Tobiko
Fish Species Smelt Flying fish
Appearance Smaller, pale yellow Larger, reddish-orange
Taste And Texture Bitter, softer Sweeter, saltier, crisp
Price Less costly More expensive

Fish Species

Tobiko and Masago originate from two distinct fish types. If Tobiko is flying fish’s egg, Masago is smelt roe.


Regarding color, Tobiko is naturally reddish-orange, while Masago is more of a pale yellow hue. Tobiko is also larger than Masago.

Taste And Texture

Tobiko is somewhat sweeter and saltier, while Masago is a tad bitter. In certain cases, you can pick up a hint of smoky taste in Tobiko.

Additionally, Tobiko has a crisp, caviar-like texture that gives a wonderful “pop” when consuming. Masago, on the other hand, possesses a softer consistency.


Although both Tobiko and Masago are affordable sushi ingredients, Masago is less expensive than Tobiko. This reason makes Masago a popular replacement for Tobiko in various sushi establishments.

Masago And Tobiko: FAQs 

If you still have questions about Masago and Tobiko, hopefully, you will find the answers in this FAQ section. It will cover top inquiries from readers about the topic, along with the correct responses.

1. Are Tobiko and Masago Free of Gluten?

Yes, the roe pair is naturally gluten-free. However, since most commercial variations of these fish roes are cured with soy sauce (which contains gluten), you should check their labels for the ingredient list.

2. What Is the Correct Way to Store Tobiko and Masago?

Freezing is the most suitable way as it does not mess up with the pair’s texture and taste. After defrosting, refrigerate them. Tobiko and Masago taste best within three days.

3. Where Can I Buy Tobiko and Masago?

You can find frozen Tobiko and Masago at many specialty food stores and oriental markets. Online shopping is another quick way to get these fish roes for your homemade sushi rolls.

4. What Drink Can I Pair with Tobiko and Masago?

You can accompany Tobiko and Masago with various beverages, especially alcoholic ones. Beers, sake, shochu, sparkling wines, white wines, and vodka are some typical examples.

Congratulations On Being A Masago – Tobiko Expert!

There you have it! You have mastered everything about Tobiko and Masago, thoroughly understanding their similarities and differences. So, the next time you enjoy sushi at a Japanese restaurant with your friends and family, share your knowledge with them!

In this comparison between Tobiko and Masago, which do you prefer? Drop a comment below to let me and other readers know. Thank you for reading!

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