Tobiko Sushi
Flying fish roe

tobiko sushi

What is Tobiko?

Tobiko is the Japanese name for the roe of flying fish, which are known for their ability to glide through the air close above and parallel to the water surface. Flying fish roe is one of the most widely consumed types of fish roe in Asia [Bledsoe et al., 2003]. Flying fish roe is often used in Japanese cuisine for the preparation of sushi and as a garnish for other dishes. In Japan, tobiko is also occasionally called “golden caviar” (gōruden-kyabia). It is a popular ingredient especially for sushi rolls of non-traditional fusion cuisine.

Tobiko as Ingredient for Sushi or Sashimi

Tobiko is produced by salting the roe of flying fish. The eggs, which are about 2 millimeter in size, are golden in color and have a hard shell, so they will not crack until a little pressure is applied [Bledsoe et al., 2003]. The crunchy and juicy feeling is accompanied by subtle salty aromas reminiscent of the sea.

Even though tobiko as gunkan-maki is not accorded the same importance in upscale sushi gastronomy as ikura, it is widely used in “ordinary” sushi gastronomy and in internationally influenced sushi dishes. Although tobiko can serve as the filling of a gunkan-maki, it is most often used as a garnish or side dish. It is often used to prepare sushi that is rolled inside-out (uramaki-zushi). In addition to preparation as uramaki, such as the California roll, tobiko is appreciated in Japanese cuisine as a combination with avocado, cucumber or mayonnaise.

Besides the natural golden coloration, there are also different colored variants of tobiko. These range from eggs blackened with sepia to bright yellow eggs, which owe their color to the dyes of citrus fruits. Commercially available tobiko comes almost exclusively from industrial mass production and is usually extensively treated with colorants, preservatives and flavors.

Best Season

Flying fish are found in the tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic and Pacific ozean, which means that the spawning season varies according to species and region. For example, the Japanese flying fish spawns on the coasts of Japan in the warm months from May to September, and the same species spawns in the South Pacific near Fiji at exactly the opposite time of year [Gillett & Ianelli, 1992].

Pasteurized and salted tobiko can be stored under refrigeration for several months without significant loss of quality.

Golden Tobiko

The natural color of the roe of the flying fish is a golden to light yellow-orange [Bledsoe et al., 2003]. This original shade remains largely untouched by modern processing or preservation processes. Compared to the colored and flavored tobikovariations, it has a more subtle and delicate taste.

In the market you often find golden tobiko that has been treated with natural curcumin (C.I. Natural Yellow 3, E100), yellow-orange food coloring (FD&C Yellow 6, E110) or ginger flavoring. In order for golden tobiko to have an authentic taste of high quality, it should not contain any preservatives, colorants or flavorings other than salt. Occasionally, Tobiko is additionally flavored with Japanese rice wine vinegar (mirin).

Yellow Tobiko

Yellow tobiko is traditionally colored with yuzu, a citrus fruit common in East Asia. In addition to yuzu, other citrus fruits are also used, such as citron.

With natural colorants yellow colored tobiko is rarely found in the trade. The majority of industrially produced yellow tobiko is colored with food colorants (FD&C Yellow No.6, E110, capsanthin, E160c) and to some extent enriched with ginger flavors.

Green Tobiko

Tobiko treated with genuine wasabi (Japanese horseradish) or its oil is greenish in color and intense in taste.

There are many products on the market whose bright green color comes from food colorants. This striking green is often created by mixing and adding lemon yellow tartrazine (C.I. Food Yellow 4, E102) and brilliant blue (C.I. Food Blue 2, E133).

Orange Tobiko

The orange tobiko is reminiscent of the color of the roe of salmonids (Ikura) and is traditionally obtained by adding soy sauce. The orange variant represents the most commonly used tobiko.

Besides the traditional coloring, the bright orange is regularly the result of the addition of food coloring. For this purpose, mainly yellow to orange tartrazine (FD&C Yellow 5, E102), yellow orange (FD&C Yellow 6, E110) and allura red (FD&C Red 40, E129) are used.

Red Tobiko

Red tobiko has a bright red coloration, which can be produced by by coloring with beet or paprika extracts. The taste is less subtle and spicy.

The hue of industrially produced red tobiko is usually produced by adding allura red (FD&C Red 40, E129).

Black Tobiko

By adding sepia, the dye extracted from the ink bag of squid (cuttlefish), tobiko turns black.

For the industrial production of black Tobiko, mainly brilliant blue (FD&C Blue No. 1, E133), brilliant black (FD&C Food Black 1, E151) and vegetable carbon (C.I. Pigment Black 6, E153) are used. The use of “real” squid ink is found only in very few high quality products.

Tobiko in Japan

The Japanese term tobiko is composed of 飛, the sign for “flying” and the sign 子 which stands for “child”. The word tobiko is derived from tobiuo (トビウオ), the Japanese name for a flying fish. By adding the word “child” (ko) the offspring of the previous term is described, in this case the roe of the flying fish (tobiuonoko or tobi-ko) [Masuo, 1987].

Characteristics & Ecology

Photo of a flying fish that lies on a white background

In the seas surrounding the Japanese archipelago, many species of flying fish are found. Therefore, no species can be identified specifically for tobiko. However, the Japanese flyingfish (hon-tobiou), the darkedged-wing flyingfish (hoso-tobiuo) and the glider flyingfish (aka-tobiou) should be emphasized due to their importance.

According to current scientific knowledge, the total number of species of flying fish is estimated to be between 60 and 70. Among these species, a distinction is made between two-winged and four-winged species. The two-winged flying fishes glide using their enlarged pectoral fins, while the four-winged flying fishes also use their enlarged pelvic fins, which contribute to their gliding ability. To escape predators, the flyfish can glide long distances above the water's surface. As a result, over the course of evolution, flying fish have evolved into slender and streamlined animals. Their reinforced lower jaw is another adaptation that prevents the fine jaw bones from being damaged when they enter the water at high speed [Howell, 2014].

Illustration showing the size comparison between flying fish roe (jap. tobiko), capelin roe (jap. masago) and salmon fish roe (jap. ikura).
In terms of size, tobiko is between masago and ikura. Thanks to its larger grain, tobiko is preferred to masago for the preparation of “battleship sushi” (gunkan maki).

The eggs of flying fish are not able to swim and have long sticky threads that serve to attach the eggs to floating objects. The roe is harvested by taking advantage of this natural behavior. The harvest is therefore carried out by using stationary or floating structures of various types, on which the females of the flying fish deposit their roe which is then collected by fishermen [Gillett & Ianelli, 1992].

Relevant Species of Flying Fish

Flying fish can be found in tropical and subtropical waters all over the world. In several parts of the world, they are an integral part of the epipelagic food chain and a valuable fishery resource [Oxenford et al., 1987].

Japanese NameCommon Name
Aya-tobiuo
アヤトビウオ(綾飛魚)
Yellowing flyingfish
Cypselurus poecilopterus
Aka-tobiuo
アカトビウオ
Glider flyingfish
Cheilopogon atrisignis
Hama-tobiuo
ハマトビウオ
Seashore flyingfish or Bennett's flying fish
Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus japonicus
Hon-tobiuo
ホントビウオ
Japanese flyingfish
Cheilopogon agoo
Hoso-tobiuo
ホソトビウオ
Darkedged-wing flyingfish
Cypselurus hiraii
Karasu-tobiuo
カラストビウオ
Margined flyingfish
Cheilopogon cyanopterus
Shirofuchi-tobiuo
シロフチトビウオ
Spotfin flyingfish
Cheilopogon furcatus
Tsukushi-tobiuo
ツクシトビウオ(筑紫飛魚)
Mediterranean flyingfish
Cheilopogon Heterurus
Idaten-tobiuo
イダテントビウオ
Tropical two-wing flyingfish or blue flyingfish
Exocoetus volitans
  1. The term “golden caviar” is also used for the eggs of an albino sturgeon and occasionally for the roe of char.
  2. The use of E151 and E153 is not permitted as food colorant in the United States of America and Japan [AFDO, 2019], [FFCR, 2020].

Native Range

Source: Kaschner, K., K. Kesner-Reyes, C. Garilao, J. Segschneider, J. Rius-Barile, T. Rees, and R. Froese. 2019. AquaMaps, Scarponi, P., G. Coro, and P. Pagano. A collection of Aquamaps native layers in NetCDF format.

References & further reading

  • [AFDO, 2019]: Issues And Concerns With Imported Foods, Food Color Additives Banned In The USA. Association Of Food And Drug Officials (AFDO), York. 2019
  • [Bledsoe et al., 2003]: G.E. Bledsoe , C.D. Bledsoe & B. Rasco. Caviars and Fish Roe Products. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition Vol. 43 (3). 2003. doi:10.1080/10408690390826545
  • [Casazza et al., 2005]: Tara L. Casazza, Steve W. Ross, Ann Marie Necaise, Kenneth J. Sulak. Reproduction and mating behavior of the atlantic flyingfish, Cheilopogon melanurus (Exocoetidae), off North Carolina. Bulletin of Marine Science Vol. 77 (3). Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Florida. 2005
  • [Evershed & Temple, 2016]: Richard Evershed, Nicola Temple. Sorting the Beef from the Bull: The Science of Food Fraud Forensics. Bloomsbury Publishing, London. 2016
  • [FFCR, 2020]: List of Designated Additives. The Japan Food Chemical Research Foundation (FFCR). 2020
  • [Furukawa, 2005]: Furukawa Tomoko (古川知子). Healthy Food Encyclopedia (食材健康大事典). Jiji Press, Tokyo (時事通信出版局, 東京都). 2005
  • [Gillett & Ianelli, 1992]: Robert Gillett, James Ianelli. Flyingfish, FFA Report 92/56. Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), Honiara. 1992
  • [Ha et al., 2016]: Bom-Bi Ha, Eun-Hee Jo, Suengmok Cho, Seon-Bong Kim. Production optimization of flying fish roe analogs using calcium alginate hydrogel beads. Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Vol. 19 (30). 2016. doi:10.1186/s41240-016-0031-y
  • [Howell, 2014]: Steve N. G. Howell. The Amazing World of Flyingfish. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 2014
  • [Masuo, 1987]: Yoshino Masuo. Sushi. Gakken Co. Ltd., Tokyo. 1987
  • [Ng, 2014]: Ka-yan Ng, Tien-Hsi Chen, George H. Balazs. Marine Turtle Newsletter: Flying Fish Egg Harvest off Keelung, Taiwan Uncovers Occurrence of Pelagic-Phase Green Turtles. Marine Turtle Newsletter, seaturtle.org. 2014. Retrieved online on: December 27, 2020: http://www.seaturtle.org/mtn/archives/mtn143/mtn143-4.shtml
  • [Oxenford et al., 1995]: Hazel A. Oxenford, Robin Mahon, Wayne Hunte. Distribution and relative abundance of flyingfish (Exocoetidae) in the eastern Caribbean. I. Adults. Marine Ecology Progress Series Vol. 11. 1995. https://dx.doi.org/10.3354/meps117011
  • [Voldnes, 2019]: Gøril Voldnes. On the hunt for flying fish. Sciencenorway.no, Oslo. 2019. Retrieved online on: December 27, 2020: https://sciencenorway.no/blog-blog-taste-of-the-sea-researchers-zone/on-the-hunt-for-flying-fish/1615770

Information

Illustration

Drawn illustration for  tobiko

Common names

flying fish roe

Japanese names

  • gouruden-kyabia (ゴウルデンーキャビア)
  • tobikko (トビッコ)
  • tobiko (トビコ)
  • tobiuonoko (トビウオノコ)

飛卵, 飛子

Scientific name

Ova exocoetidae

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