It goes without saying, that each type of fish has its very own scientific name. However, in places like the Toyosu Fish Market, there are seafoods that end up sharing a name.
The official Japanese name of ama ebi (sweet shrimp) is “Hokkoku Akaebi” (scientific name: Pandaluseous Makarov).
In Japan, ama ebi lives naturally along the Sea of Japan coast and the coasts of Hokkaido, and the ama ebi sold at Toyosu market is caught from Toyama prefecture and northward to Hokkaido and southward. When made into nigiri sushi, it is harmonious with the acidity of the vinegared rice and the thick sweetness is irresistible. It really lives up to its “sweet” name.
However, what dominates the Toyosu Market is frozen shrimp of the same pandalidae family, called “Honhokkoku Akaebi” (scientific name: pandalus borealis kroyer) from Iceland and Greenland.
This is distributed as “Ama ebi” at the market, but strictly speaking it is a different type of shrimp. As far as appearance goes, it is impossible to tell the difference and they say that even the flavor is the same.
The majority of ama ebi used at conveyor belt sushi is produced in Greenland and imported to Japan through China. The reason for this import circumvention is that the processing to turn the shrimp into ready-made sushi toppings is done using inexpensive labor in China. The frozen ama ebi is thawed in China, processed (head, shell, etc., are removed) and then frozen again. Of course, this process diminishes the freshness of the fish. Preservatives are used to help prevent this. For example, pigment fixing agents are used in order to reduce discoloration from fading. Furthermore, acidity regulators and antioxidants are used to prevent changes in the quality and color of the meat. Ama ebi is stored in packs of 50, imported en masse to Japan, and can be used for sushi or sashimi immediately upon thawing.
As this ama ebi caught in the North Atlantic Ocean is considerably cheaper than domestic ama ebi, the reality is that conveyor belt sushi wouldn’t survive in Japan without these imports.
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.
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:
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.
There is a way to tell the difference between real caviar and fake caviar.
First, place the caviar on a cracker. Fake caviar (made of Lumpfish roe) has added color, and this color will bleed onto the cracker within about 30 minutes. However, the color will not transfer to the cracker from real caviar.
The main raw ingredients of artificial caviar are as follows:
Sea urchin extract
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.
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.
The following describes the artificial salmon roe composition. The nucleus of artificial salmon roe is made of red-colored vegetable oil, the thin outer film is made of sodium alginate or carrageenan, and the sol-like contents are made of polysaccharides derived from seaweed, Gum arabic, and Xanthan gum. While real salmon roe is high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, artificial salmon roe is high in saturated fatty acids derived from vegetable oils, oleic acid and linoleic acid.
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
Fish roe usually cannot be preserved as is, so it is salted or smoked to make it last longer. Today, thanks to advances in freezing technology, frozen fresh fish roe is also available, but as a raw material for processing, fish roe is often salted to reduce its water content and then frozen for preservation. Nutritional value is generally high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates, with higher calories and cholesterol than the meat of the parent fish.
What is Tarako? －Tarako is the salted ovary of Alaska pollack. It is often colored red with food coloring. Karashi-mentaiko is Tarako marinated in a seasoning solution of salt and chili peppers, and is a well-known Hakata specialty. The name Karashi-mentaiko comes from the Korean word for Alaska pollack, Mentai.
What is Caviar? － It is Sturgeon roe.
What is Karasumi? －It is made by salting, aging, and drying the ovaries of Flathead gray mullet (Bolla). The product resembles Chinese ink karasumi, hence the name. Good ones are candy-colored, cut into thin slices, lightly roasted, and served as nibbles for drinks. Imports have been increasing recently, but the most famous domestic product is karasumi from Nomo, Nagasaki Prefecture.
What is komochi konbu? － It is Herring spawn on kelp.