What Is Masago?

Seafood items are among the most used ingredients in Japanese cuisine. This island nation’s cooking has been primarily based on what they could find by scouring the waters around them, and masago is one of those ingredients. If the name sounds strange, you may also wonder what is masago and where it comes from.

Masago is a type of fish roe, similar to caviar and tobiko. It comes from capelin fish, a small fish from the smelt family, which nests in the cold North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Arctic waters. Masago is similar to tobiko in looks and taste, so it’s often used as a replacement for it in restaurants. It’s colored to get the signature orange look, but it’s naturally pale yellow.

If you don’t see the difference between masago and tobiko, keep reading to learn more about it. You may be inspired to buy some of this tasty fish roe to garnish your next meal.

What Is Masago, and Where Can You Typically See It?

Since masago is fish roe, just like caviar, you may wonder – is masago caviar? Technically, it is, since they’re both fish eggs. However, caviar is a more expensive and complicated ingredient, since it’s extracted from rare sturgeon fish; only sturgeon fish eggs are considered “real caviar” so masago isn’t it.

Masago is a fish roe extracted from a smelt fish called capelin. These small fish are greenish and resemble sardines. In the ocean hierarchy, they’re considered feeder fish or food for other sea creatures like codfish, whales, and even land creatures like seals and seabirds.

Capelin fish swim in northern, cold waters, especially the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and the Arctic. Fishermen catch them for their nutrition, but they more often take them for their eggs or masago.

Naturally, masago is pale yellow, but it’s often dyed to resemble tobiko and ikura. Tobiko is a bright orange fish roe extracted from Japanese flying fish, and it’s very commonly used in seafood dishes and sushi. Ikura is salmon roe, and it’s one of the most valued and appreciated ingredients in Japanese cuisine.

Masago, tobiko, and ikura resemble each other because they’re all brightly colored. To the untrained eye, these three fish roe types are entirely identical and indistinguishable, but any chef would be able to tell the difference. 

Masago eggs are the tiniest; tobiko eggs average between 0.5 and 0.8 millimeters, so imagine how small masago must be. Ikura eggs are the largest, and they’re very easy to distinguish from the other two.

Interested to know more about other Japanese delicacies? Read also :

What Is Ramen Sushi?
What Sushi Is White?
What Is Thai Sushi?
What Is Chicken Sushi?
Is Nigiri Sushi?

Capelin Fish Roe Is a Common Ingredient in Japanese Restaurants

Since capelin fish eggs are easier and cheaper to acquire, you’ll more likely get masago on your sushi than tobiko. Still, their tastes aren’t too different – while tobiko has a smoky, salty taste, masago carries a salty and briny flavor. 

Tobiko is more often used in high-end restaurants, but just because masago feels like a lesser version, it doesn’t mean it’s worse or bad tasting. Besides, capelin fish eggs seem to carry a lot more nutrition and benefits than tobiko, despite both being high in cholesterol and protein.

What Does Masago Taste Like?

While the taste of masago is briny, salty, and, naturally, fishy, many culinary experts claim it also has a slightly citrusy and bitter taste, giving each bite a new, flavorful dimension. If you’ve never had caviar but did try masago, you probably wonder does masago taste like caviar.

Caviar is salty, and many people say it’s what a sea breeze would taste like while eating. Biting into it also releases a sweet aftertaste in the mouth. Masago, on the other hand, has a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it’s salty in its essence.

Tobiko has a crunchy texture, and the small beads pop in your mouth while you chew. That’s a signature taste for Japanese flying fish roe. Compared to that, masago doesn’t have the popping sensation – it’s chewier and more sandy in texture. It’s softer and easier to handle when preparing sushi.

The Nutritional Value of Capelin Fish Roe Is High and Beneficial

The table below describes the nutritional and caloric values of masago and the recommended daily intake for each. An average person requires between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day. The numbers are based on one ounce (28 grams) of capelin fish roe.

Nutritional ValueAmount% of recommended daily intake
Vitamin C5mg7%
Vitamin E1,5mg10%
Riboflavin (B2)0,24mg12%
Vitamin B121mcg47%

Masago, Like Tobiko, Is High In Protein and Has Omega-3 Benefits

Both tobiko and masago have a high amount of protein, but they’re also high in cholesterol. Still, masago is less packed with calories, so eating a lot of it wouldn’t be as risky as eating a lot of tobiko.

As you can see in the table above, masago is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which boost brain functioning and the immune system. These fatty acids also help any healing process in your body to speed up. That means you can eat fish roe when you’re ill, as it won’t deter your health in any way.

Masago vs Tobiko, or How Masago Raises Ethical Questions

Besides color, pricing, and taste, another reason why masago and tobiko are often placed against each other is the way they’re acquired. For a long time now, the ways of collecting masago have been criticized for being ethically suspicious and unsustainable.

Collecting flying fish roe or tobiko is fairly sustainable. The female flying fish lay eggs in specific areas, and fishermen leave traps in those places and gather the tobiko eggs; this way, no fish are harmed in the process. The only downside is the fishermen collecting too many eggs and not leaving enough for the species to replenish itself.

As opposed to the sustainable and harmless ways of collecting tobiko, the methods of collecting masago are more harmful, both for the capelin fish and the environment that depends on them. Masago is cheaper because it’s easier to find, but as mentioned before, capelin fish are food for other species that keep the circle of life going.

The more capelin fish are caught, the less food sea (and some land) creatures have, resulting in a rise in the number of endangered species. It may seem like we’d be fine without some animal species in the world, but each one contributes to the ecosystem, including the small but vital capelin fish.

Capelin female fish are caught and used for acquiring their eggs. Since fishermen mostly catch the females, the species is continuously at risk of extinction. However, according to sources, the number of these fish is globally high and not yet at such a risk, but the danger is there nevertheless.

Cooking With Masago Is Easy With These Simple and Delicious Recipes

Since masago is a kind of garnish or topping, it can go with most foods and dishes. It brings saltiness and some bitterness to a meal, so add it to neutral meals that usually don’t have a naturally strong flavor. That could be eggs, rice, and pasta, for example.

Some people recommend adding masago to a platter of cheese and fruits as part of an appetizer. Others swear by sprinkling these tiny fish eggs onto a bagel with cream cheese. These are excellent ideas for elevating everyday foods and ingredients.

The recipes below are fairly simple to make and don’t require too many ingredients. If you stumble upon a box of masago or get it as a gift but don’t know how to use it, take a look at some options below.

The Masago Pasta Recipe for Lovers of Exotic Flavors and Simplicity

This pasta recipe will impress you with its multitude of flavors and simplicity. The following measures yield enough food for two plates. You’ll need:

  • 2oz of masago,
  • 2 green onions, chopped,
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil,
  • 1 tablespoon butter,
  • 2 teaspoon soy sauce,
  • 6oz pasta,
  • Shredded nori seaweed (optional).

Firstly, boil the pasta in water and drain it when done. While the pasta is cooking, mix the masago, green onions, soy sauce, olive oil, and butter together in a separate bowl. After draining the pasta, add the sauce into it and mix. Sprinkle with nori seaweed if desired. 

In just a couple of simple steps, your masago pasta is ready to eat.

An Inevitable Masago Sushi Recipe

Capelin fish eggs are used as decoration on the outside of sushi rolls. If you’re concerned about rolling and making homemade sushi, don’t be. It’s easier than you think and gives a very delicious and nutritious meal overall.

For the sushi rice, you’ll need:

  • 1 cup short grain sushi rice,
  • 1 cup of water,
  • 1 and ½ tablespoons of sushi vinegar (or make your own, in the recipe).

For the insides of the sushi rolls, you’ll need:

  • 4oz imitation crab,
  • 1 avocado, cut lengthwise into slices,
  • 2 sheets of nori seaweed,
  • 1 tablespoon masago.

To begin preparing your sushi, cook one cup of rice in one cup of water. The best way to know the right amount of water when cooking rice is putting your finger in the pot; if the water reaches the first joint of your index finger, you have enough. You’ll be able to tell by the line on the finger.

When the sushi is cooked and while it’s cooling, add sushi vinegar to it and stir it all together. If you don’t have sushi vinegar, making it from scratch is simple – mix rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. The vinegar is used to add flavor and some stickiness to the rice and helps make it easier to roll.

Get a plastic wrap and a bamboo mat for rolling, if you have one. If not, the plastic wrap will be enough, but it may be trickier to roll everything together. Spread the rice in a rectangle shape on the plastic wrapping.

Cut one nori sheet in half and place it on top of the plastic wrap. Layer the strips of imitation crab and avocado on top of the nori, but do it slightly off-center, closer to you, so you can wrap everything more easily.

Start rolling, and use all your fingers for it if necessary. If you don’t make it at first, the roll won’t be ruined; just take a deep breath and try again. Roll until the rice edges meet, and then tighten the plastic wrap a bit.

In your next step, you can unwrap the roll, sprinkle masago over the plastic wrap and repeat the rolling process, only this time only for the surface decoration. Or you can take the roll out of the plastic, sprinkle masago on top, and cut it into smaller pieces.

If You’re Not a Fan of Raw Fish, Try This Baked Salmon With Masago Sauce

Not many people like the taste of raw fish in sushi, but fortunately for them, there are more ways of using masago than just sprinkling sushi with it. This baked salmon recipe is perfect because it’s healthy, and yet the masago sauce gives it a more distinguished and hearty flavor.

The recipe is for two servings, and the preparation method isn’t complex at all, aside from making the syrup that goes into the sauce. The original recipe calls for a Korean plum syrup, which can be either totally omitted from the sauce or replaced with a mixture of water, apple cider vinegar, and sugar.

Additionally, you can use as much salmon as you like. A typical serving is around 4-5oz, but if you like a bigger piece, go for it. You can also cook the entire fillet without slicing it into smaller pieces. The measurements are all subject to change.

To cook this salmon dish, you’ll need:

  • 10oz salmon fillet cut into two 5oz individual servings,
  • Masago,
  • Mayonnaise,
  • Onion, diced,
  • Green onion, chopped,
  • A syrup mixture of white vinegar, sugar, and water (ratioed 1:1)
  • Salt,
  • Pepper,
  • Lemon,
  • Olive oil,
  • Sriracha (optional)
  • Fresh parsley (optional).

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, or 375 if you’re cooking the whole fillet. Place baking paper on a pan and the salmon on top of it. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon on both sides, and use as much seasoning as you like. Still, don’t overdo it – you don’t want to have inedible pieces of high-quality fish.

To make the sauce for the topping, mix together the masago, mayonnaise, diced onion, chopped green onion, and the white vinegar syrup in a separate bowl. If you wish, add sriracha and fresh parsley to the mixture, too. Mix them all together until you get a nice blend.

Lightly oil the baking paper to prevent salmon from sticking to it while in the oven. Pour the sauce mixture on top of the salmon fillet, generously. Make sure to cover the entire surface, and use a spoon to even it out, if necessary. Cut the lemon into thin slices and garnish the salmon with the topping.

If you’re baking separate fillets, bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, then broil them for 2 minutes. If your salmon fillet is still whole, bake it at 375 for 15 minutes, then at 400 for 5 minutes, and then broil it another 2 minutes. The broiling is optional in both cases, but it gives the salmon a much fuller and more complete taste.You can even reduce baking time by 2-3 minutes if you prefer a more raw salmon. The decision is yours, and this recipe couldn’t be easier. Alterations are available, and you get to choose the amounts of each ingredient. Hopefully, cooking won’t be so scary with this recipe.

Capelin Fish Roe Is a Tasty Addition to Japanese Meals

There’s nothing quite as exciting as using high-end fish eggs as one of the main ingredients in your dishes. If you’re sushi or a Japanese cuisine fan, masago, tobiko, and ikura are the brightly-colored decorations that have become inevitable in their recipes and sushi designs.

Although collecting capelin fish roe raises some eyebrows in terms of its sustainability and eco-friendliness, this species is still far from becoming extinct. Its eggs are a delicious, affordable, and vibrant addition to some homemade recipes. If you want to impress a boy, a girl, your friends, or your parents by showing them you can cook independently, get some masago for garnish and make an even stronger impression.