What is Red caviar?

Not to belabor the point, but the following is dependent on the following. In Japanese salmon is referred to as “鮭” (sake/salmon) or “鱒” (masu/trout). The characters look different, but they are part of the same family and there aren’t clear biological categories to separate them into. Incidentally, in English the type that makes their way into the sea are called “salmon,” and those that remain in freshwater their entire lives are known as, “trout.” They are all considered to be part of the salmon family. Now, foreigners who know about Japan may imagine Japanese sake (the alcoholic beverage) when they hear the word “sake” so we spell sake/salmon as “shake”, which is close to the sound pronounced by Japanese people.

First of all, shake is mainly Chum salmon, caught in the seas near Japan. Masu caught in the seas near Japan are mostly Pink salmon (Humpback salmon) and Sakura masu. Masu caught in rivers and lakes are generally Char or Rainbow trout.

Now we finally get to the topic of this article, shake roe that has been removed from the ovarian membrane then salted or marinated in soy sauce is called ikura while masu roe is called masuko and they are clearly distinguished. This is because masuko can be bought at just 20-40% of the cost of ikura. However, the difference is really that each egg is smaller than that of ikura and in general people can’t taste a difference.

Over the past 10 years or so, the masuko made from the roe of Rainbow trout farmed in France and the masu farmed in Japan have been called ‘red caviar’ by manufacturers. Of course black caviar made from the roe of sturgeon and tobiko made from the roe of flying fish are distinctive. Certainly there is no problem in calling fish roe caviar according to the Product Labeling laws, but it’s extremely clear that they are only trying to get a higher price out of it.


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Revision date: March 9, 2021

What is Artificial caviar?

Caviar refers to salted sturgeon ovaries but in many European countries, caviar is also used as a generic term for fish roe. In its home of Russia, roe is generally called “ikura” and caviar specifically refers to black fish roe.

Caviar is one of the world’s three major delicacies and can command different prices depending on the type of sturgeon (egg size). It is ranked in the order: Beluga, Oscietra and Sevruga, all of which come from the Caspian Sea. Beluga from the Caspian Sea is designated as an endangered species and international trade is prohibited by the Washington Convention. Its population is very small and it does not lay eggs until 20 years into its lifespan, so the resource has yet to recover. This has brought the market price of Beluga up to around USD $400 for just 50 g.

What is the substitute for caviar?

Lumpfish roe is sold as a substitute for caviar. The size of each egg is about 2 mm in diameter and it is colored with squid ink. This gives it a taste and appearance similar to caviar. The market price is an astonishing USD $5 per 50 g.

The main ingredients of Lumpfish caviar are as follows:

  •  Lumpfish roe
  •  Salt
  •  Sugar
  •  Thickening agent
  •  Sodium benzoate
  •  Coloring

What is artificial caviar?

Artificial caviar is significantly cheaper than genuine caviar. It’s low in fats, lower in calories and healthier than the real thing. It is already a big hit in the U.S. The size of the eggs is a little larger than authentic caviar and the skin is thicker but most people would tell you the texture and taste is much the same. There has also been a decrease in sturgeon, and there is no sign that its price will fall in the future. The challenge is meeting the global demand through a combination of farmed caviar which has become a more stable supply in recent years, with the ever-dwindling wild caviar. The market price is reasonable at around USD $10 for 50 g.

The main raw ingredients of artificial caviar are as follows:

  •  Sea urchin extract
  •  Oyster extract
  •  Gelatin
  •  Dextrin
  •  D-sorbitol
  •  Trehalose
  •  Gelling agent
  •  Seasoning
  •  Coloring

Finally, seafood with a high price, unfortunately, results in substitutes, counterfeits, and artificial products. Masquerading a fake as the real thing can result in a large profit. I will tell you that it is difficult to trick a middleman who serves professional sushi chefs or restaurants. Therefore anyone in Japan who uses seafood like this, does it knowingly, which makes the crime even worse.


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Revision date: January 4, 2021

Today you will learn how to easily identify artificial salmon roe!

The natural salmon roe season is the autumn. Does this mean that most of the roe eaten during the off-season is artificial Salmon roe. Not necessarily. As stated in his biography, even at the famous sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, frozen roe is thawed as necessary.

Long ago this was an extremely expensive topping that ordinary people couldn’t afford, so artificial roe was used. There was a time when this was the case. But nowadays salmon roe is regularly imported from overseas and can be obtained cheaper, eliminating the need to use artificial roe instead.

However, we cannot overlook the commercial law for passing off artificial roe as natural roe. In Japan, the non-perishable properties of artificial salmon roe made from chemical substances (mainly sodium alginate) is utilized and used mainly in hospitals, but not sold to the general public. I’ll also tell you that it is very rare to find a sushi restaurant that serves artificial roe. Cheap roe is generally made from eggs of trout, other related species, or imported from Canada and other countries.

Unfortunately I’m not familiar with the state of things outside of Japan, but I can tell you how to tell the difference. All it takes is hot water and a moment of observation. Artificial salmon roe will show no changes in hot water, but natural roe will start to turn white on the surface. This is due to the protein reacting and changing with the heat. That said, this is not an experience you can just set up at the sushi restaurant.

As an aside…

What are the fish eggs on sushi called in Japan?

There are eight types of fish eggs served at Japanese sushi restaurants. However, not all of them are used for Nigiri sushi. Some are served as side dishes. Uni is sometimes translated as sea urchin’s roe, but it is actually the sea urchin’s genitals (testes and ovaries). Most people also don’t know that Tobiko and Tarako are not served at 99% of Edo-style restaurants. In other words, these toppings are only served at kaiten-sushi (conveyor belt) restaurants. The one type of roe topping that can probably be found at all sushi restaurants is Ikura. Even more types of fish eggs, such as Masago, Paddlefish roe and Hackleback roe are used in sushi overseas, but Japan remains more conservative. Of course, it’s only natural that fish substitutes are not well-received in the place where sushi was born.

Types of fish roe

What is Ikura? - It is Salmon roe.

What is Kazunoko? - It is Herring eggs.

What is Sujiko? - It is Salmon roe that is still within its egg membrane.

What is Tobiko? - It is Flying fish roe.

What is Tarako? - It is Walleye pollock roe.

What is Caviar? - It is Sturgeon roe.

What is Karasumi? - It is Dried mullet roe.

What is komochi konbu? - It is Herring spawn on kelp.

What is Msago? - It is smelt roe.

Just for your own information.

Related contentsWhat is Artificial caviar?


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Revision date: January 5, 2021