What Is Masago And What Does It Taste Like?

Have you ever had sushi and wondered about the origins of those tiny orange spheres that adorn various types of rolls? They're called masago, and are a trademark ingredient in not only Japanese cuisine, but many different food cultures worldwide. While they may not offer as much of the flavor or textural component of lobster, shrimp, yellowtail, nori, or rice, they're invaluable, and a cherished ingredient for many.

The Kitchn notes that masago is capelin roe, which are eggs from the capelin fish, a type of smelt. Healthline defines roe as the "fully ripened eggs of many types of fish," and also notes that capelin, or smelt, look similar to sardines. How Daily states that masago actually means "sand" in Japanese, which is a reference to the roe's diminutive size.

Masago is characterized by its bright, vibrant orange hue. Capelin is often found in arctic waters across carious oceans, and their roe is miniscule — only about one millimeter in diameter, according to Izzy Cooking. 

What does masago taste like?

From a flavor perspective, masago has a briny, salty note that can be slightly bitter and subtly fishy. It has a rather high sodium content, which is evident once you taste it. Of course, it is raw. It certainly contributes a slight crunch to whatever it is added to, but it doesn't have the trademark "pop" that caviar often delivers. Masago also naturally clumps together, so the slight crunch it offers is often multiplied when someone bites into a whole cluster of masago at once. 

In addition to myriad sushi rolls, it's also great with fish in any capacity (cooked dishes, sashimi, and so on), as well as with vegetables and all kinds of rice in different appetizers, meals, and side dishes. They often act as a garnish or are sometimes mixed with condiments or sides to act as dipping sauces, says Izzy Cooking. Of course, its trademark color also adds variety and brightness beyond just the flavor and textural components.

Is masago naturally orange?

Masago's trademark color is actually manmade. The tiny eggs are dyed to make them more aesthetically appealing. Isn't it strange that one of the trademark properties of masago is actually not inherent? In actuality, the natural color of masago is much more lackluster and ordinary, usually more of a pale yellow (via Izzy Cooking).

While there are many types of fish roe often used in Japanese cuisine, the two most prominent are certainly tobiko and masago. While tobiko is more ubiquitous in Japan, masago is more often used in the US. Masago may be sometimes conflated with tobiko, but the latter is considerably larger and often green, so its quite simple to differentiate between them. Nor do both come from the same source. Tobiko is the roe of flying fish, and is also much more expensive, so many Japanese restaurants tend to opt for masago because of its price point and because the flavor disparity isn't too extreme (via Sushi FAQ).

What are the health benefits? Is it a sustainable food source?

Nutritionally, masago is very low in calories and offers omega-3 fatty acids, multiple vitamins, magnesium, and selenium. You can purchase it online, at Asian markets and grocery stories, or some supermarkets, according to Izzy Cooking. It's especially high in vitamin B12, amino acids, protein, and much more. It's also low in mercury, but obviously very high in sodium (via Healthline). In most cases, though, there's not enough masago added to a dish for that to pose any issue. 

Masago is a contested topic from a sustainability perspective. While it's noted that capelin is relatively sustainable and the population is quite high worldwide, there are also concerns about over-production due to the fact that more female fish are "targeted" in order to meet the need for masago, which has affected the gender disparity breakdown of the fish species over the year, according to Healthline. Definitely something interesting to mull over next time you indulge in sushi.