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What Is Masago?

When you visit a Japanese restaurant and order some sushi rolls, you might notice these tiny bright-colored balls coating or topping your favorite tasty appetizer—aAha, masago! 

Somewhat similar in taste to tobiko (flying fish roe), masago is one of the most sought-after garnishes among food enthusiasts around the globe. 

However, despite its popularity, others really don’t know where this ingredient comes from and what’s the story behind its color variations. 

So what is masago? If you’re unfamiliar with this garnish, you’re in for a treat! 

Come along with this walkthrough guide to learn interesting facts about the roe of the capelin fish masago, from flavor profile, culinary purpose, down to its best storage.

What Is Masago

Contents

Often confused with tobiko (flying fish roe), masago is a Japanese cuisine ingredient of capelin roe —edible eggs or roes of the capelin fish (Mallotus villosus)  a small fish that belongs to the smelt family.

Capelin is considered a forage fish, meaning izt’s a vital source of food for larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. 

Once female capelin reach around two to four years of age, the fish begins to release eggs or roes. 

The roe of capelin, usually with a dull yellow color, are harvested from female capelin then dyed to make them more appealing when applied to dishes. 

Once the dyeing process of the eggs is done, the natural pale yellow hue of the eggs turns bright orange, black, and red when they’re mixed with natural ingredients like wasabi, squid ink, or ginger. 

Masago is a popular ingredient used on the outside of sushi rolls and is notable for its briny and salty flavor with a slightly semi-crunchy and sandy texture.

Apart from sushi, this unique ingredient of capelin eggs is an important food source with a different taste. It is also commonly used in rice dishes, Asian cuisine and inspired dishes, and appetizers.

What does masago taste like?

So what does masago taste like? Its flavor profile is somewhat similar to tobiko, however, these fish products have a mild taste and are slightly more bitter than salmon roe. (They do taste very similar, though.)

Once dyed and added to recipes, masago adds a touch of briny notes.

The eggs are smaller than tobiko yet they have this pleasingly semi-crunchy texture perfect for sushi rolls and other Asian-inspired dishes like noodles and rice recipes.

Where does masago come from?

As mentioned, masago is made from edible eggs or roes of the capelin fish.

These small masago eggs (smaller than tobiko) are harvested from the female capelin once the fish reaches around two to four years of age. 

The natural capelin fish eggs have a dull yellow color but this hue turns bright orange, black, or red after it undergoes dyeing process or marination. 

What color is masago?

If you’re wondering what’s the color of masago, typically, natural masago has a dull yellow color. 

Once it’s harvested and undergoes a dyeing process or marination, this natural color becomes orange, black, or red once mixed with natural ingredients like wasabi, squid ink, or ginger.

What is masago in sushi?

Also dubbed as smelt roe and smaller and less expensive than tobiko, masago looks like small orange balls on top or sides of sushi. These are not sturgeon roe (caviar) because the fish species is different.

Capelin eggs are used as a coating or garnishing ingredient used at sushi restaurants and a key component for creating masago sauce for Japanese spaghetti noodles.

While there are many types of roe, the main difference is the species of fish vary widely. The eggs of many types of fish varies, too.

How long does masago last?

If it’s well stored and you handle the ingredient correctly, your unopened glass of masago roe should last for up to a week in the refrigerator and up to a year when stored in the freezer. 

Once you open the container, protein-rich foods only last for up to five days and should be stored in the coldest part of your fridge.  

For best quality, it’s advisable consuming the masago within six months when frozen or within three days after opening. 

How to store masago

When you buy masago, it can stay fresh for up to a week in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer, only if you store the ingredient properly. 

Keep in mind that once you open its container, be sure to use the remaining masago within five days as this is the time frame wherein the product is at its optimum flavor and quality. 

Here’s how to store an unopened glass of masago in the freezer:

  1. Place the unopened glass of masago in your freezer. 
  2. Make sure you won’t open the container. 
  3. When you plan to use the product, place the glass in the fridge and let it thaw. 
  4. Once thawed, make sure to use your masago within three to five days for the best quality.

Is masago real fish eggs?

Yes, masago refers to the edible eggs of the capelin fish that belong to the smelt family. 

This small and slender type of fish is usually found in the North Atlantic, Arctic waters and North Pacific Oceans.

It’s considered as one of the key forage species for larger predators such as larger fishes, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Ways to use masago

Masago is used to whip up seafood pasta and rice dishes, which can incorporate a nice briny flavor and semi-crunchy texture to these recipes. 

Because it is a delicacy it is more economical as a finishing touch. 

If you don’t know how to use it (yet), here are some great ways to utilize masago in your daily cooking.

  • Use it to create masago sushi rolls (even simple California rolls are a delight with a masago topping).  
  • Create a masago sauce by combining mayo, fresh masago roe, sriracha sauce, and lime. 
  • Whip up a delicious appetizer by piling masago, cheese, and fruit onto a cheese board.
  • Add a few teaspoons of masago to your Asian noodle dishes. 
  • Add a pop of color to Japanese Kani salad. 
  • Serve it alongside your cooked salmon.
  • Try our recipe for Ponzo Shoyu sauce with masago finisher.

The bottom line

Masago has long been one of the Japanese people’s favorites and most consumed condiments. 

It’s usually added in many appetizers, fish dishes, and rice-based recipes. You can substitute the bright color of masago for the eggs of other different species of fish.

Despite its unique flavor profile, some people don’t really love the ingredient and prefer to exclude roe or take just a small taste from these side dishes.

So how about you? Do you LIKE them or HATE them? Do let us know!

Masago Ponzu Shoyu

Masago Ponzu Shoyu

Yield: Tops 24 oysters
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes

This Ponzu sauce is also delicious as a dip for grilled King Trumpet or Oyster mushrooms. Special thanks to Chez Shinae for this recipe inspiration.

Ingredients

  • 2 dozen fresh, raw oysters in the shell, shucked

Ponzu Shoyu:

  • 1 T soy sauce or coconut aminos
  • 1 T water
  • 2 T lemon juice
  • 1/2 t lemon zest
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1/8 t prepared horseradish
  • 2 T minced shallot

Topping:

  • 1 or 2 oz of Masago, less or more to taste
  • Cilantro, chopped fine
  • Lemon wedges for garnish

Instructions

  1. Mix all Ponzu Shoyu ingredients in a small bowl and stir or whisk until the sugar and wasabi are dissolved.
  2. Spoon over your raw or roasted oysters.
  3. Add a little finely chopped cilantro over the top of each and plate with lemon wedges. 
  4. Top with very small amounts of masago for color, flavor and a delicious crunchy addition.

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