There are plenty of iconic images that come to mind when you think of Japan. Whether it’s towering pagodas surrounded by cherry blossoms, colorful kimonos and Harajuku fashions, sizeable sumo wrestlers, or bustling downtown restaurants serving ramen and sushi, this nation has something for everyone.
Fish-lovers in particular might be picturing another gastronomic Japanese obsession and that’s ikura. A common garnish in Japanese cuisine, ikura is easily recognized by its glossy spheres in peachy-orange tones. It looks delicate and lovely, but it’s more than just eye-candy.
Our readers may already adore these tiny pleasure pearls, while others might be hesitant to sample something so exotic.
What is ikura?
First up, what exactly is it??
Ikura is roe, or eggs, that come from salmon. After the eggs are carefully removed from the female salmon, they are flavored and preserved by being either cured, marinated or fermented.
The eggs themselves are relatively big as far as roe goes – typically between 5 and 10 mm in diameter. Don’t confuse them with the miniscule dots you’ve seen adorning the edges of seaweed-wrap maki rolls. These eggs are glossy and translucent with a distinctively bright orange color.
Red caviar vs ikura
What is the difference between red caviar and ikura?
Ikura is just one type of red caviar. Ikura tends to be on the larger end of the egg scale and has a brighter shade of orange than some others.
Let’s back up and define the word ‘caviar’ first. Traditional caviar refers to roe that originates from several varieties of sturgeon, for example, beluga, osetra or sterlet.
Therefore, if the eggs do not come from the sturgeon fish family, it’s not actually the dark, wildly expensive ‘caviar’ we commonly associate with Champagne, classical music and soaring social status.
When we speak of ‘red caviar’, we’re talking about fish eggs that are not sourced from sturgeon, but from fish in the Salmonidae family. This classification includes salmon, as well as trout and whitefish. Red caviar is…you guessed it: reddish.
Or to be more precise, it has an eye-catching orangey-red shade. Within this grouping, and depending on the specific breed of fish, there is a range of egg sizes and shades.
What does ikura mean in Japanese?
The word ‘ikura’ is from the Japanese language and simply means ‘salmon roe’. However, since salmon is not originally native to Japanese waters, the word ikura was brought into the language from the Russian word ‘ikra’, which means ‘fish eggs’. When used in the context of Japanese cuisine, ikura refers specifically to eggs found inside salmon fish.
Interestingly, ‘ikura’ has another meaning in Japanese. It is used to communicate ‘how much’ or ‘how many’. So, if you were at the fish market in Japan and wanted to ask, “How much is the salmon roe?”, you would say, “Ikura wa ikura desu ka?”
What does ikura taste like?
Let’s be honest here. Salmon roe isn’t for everyone, but you’ll never know if you like it unless you give it a try.
Ikura feels firm, juicy and a tiny bit oily. The taste explodes onto your tongue when the orbs have burst open inside your mouth. Ikura’s flavor has been described as full and rich, slightly salty and sweet.
A more accurate descriptor for the taste is the Japanese word ‘umami’. This means the nice, savory sensation that greets your taste buds, roof and back of your mouth when you eat something high in the amino acid ‘glutamate’. This umami phenomenon is present in broth, meat, mushrooms, cheese, etc. It’s a very desirable effect, especially when paired with the right complement.
How to eat ikura
In Japan, ikura is usually served on top of a sushi roll or marinated and eaten with rice and pickles. Ikura can also be steamed and paired with a cooked salmon dish, but eating it cold is the best way to experience it.
There are many other creative ways to eat salmon roe.
If you want a pure red caviar sampling, try eating ikura alone. Be sure to savor it as the flavor-filled pearls pop open in your mouth. To preserve the original taste of the cured salmon roe, it’s important to avoid using a metal bowl and spoon. By using implements made from porcelain, bone, mother-of-pearl or glass, the flavor will not be sabotaged by the oxidization of metal.
You could also try with sour cream on top of blini, a small Russian pancake, which is a common black caviar combination. Alternatively, topping crêpes with salmon roe and butter is another option.
Ikura may also be used as an attractive, crunchy garnish and sprinkled on top of eggs, salads, pastas and creamy soups. It’s an amazing appetizer ingredient atop crackers, mini pastry shells or toast. Some gourmet enthusiasts even mash it and use it in spreads.
These are just a few ideas. With a little imagination and experimentation, the possibilities are endless.
Where can you buy ikura?
Thankfully, ikura is not nearly as costly as true caviar that comes from sturgeon. Salmon roe can usually be purchased salted or cured and stored in jars and cans, It may also be found dried, frozen and even transformed into pastes.
Preserved or frozen ikura can be found in a grocery store, local Asian supermarket or fine food shop that sells specialty items. You can also buy Ikura from companies which exclusively offer seafood or caviar products both in-person and online.
To determine the quality of your purchase, the roe should not look greasy and of course good ikura should never smell ‘off’. The small globes should be shiny and plump, not too soft or squishy. The flavor will ideally be the perfect combination of sweet and salty, but not overpoweringly so. If in doubt, try to find reviews and recommendations before you select a brand.
The cost of ikura varies according to type and brand and market changes, but expect to pay around $50 to 75 USD per pound. The good thing is, ikura is not consumed in large quantities and a little goes a long way.
Calories in ikura
There are approximately 40 calories in a 30 gram serving (around two tablespoons) of ikura.
In addition to this low calorie count, ikura is similar to fish in that it has many other health benefits.
Salmon roe has a fair amount of protein. It is also loaded with vitamins A, B12, D3 and C and contains several minerals, including magnesium, potassium and iron, just to name a few. Eating foods rich in these nutrients can improve all sorts of things, from the immune system to skin health, from eyesight to liver function.
And the biggest bonus to eating ikura? It contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA. These are key to improving brain health and preventing conditions such as heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.
Are there any risks to eating salmon eggs? The main potential issue is the consumption of pollutants, mercury in particular. Mercury poisoning can cause serious adverse health effects, specifically targeting the nervous system, brain activity and fetal development. Although this is a consideration when consuming any kind of seafood, the presence of mercury and other toxins in salmon is actually quite low in comparison to other kinds of fish. You would have to eat a very large amount of ikura to suffer any effects.
So, as with any ingredient, eat ikura wisely and enjoy it with moderation.
How long can you keep ikura?
When you purchase ikura in a jar or can, the unopened product can stay in your fridge for four weeks. When you open it, the clock starts ticking and you’ve only got three days to eat it while it’s still good.
Ikura will keep for three days if placed at the bottom of your refrigerator. If ikura is left at room temperature or warmer for more than 24 hours, it will go bad.
If you buy fresh salmon eggs, you can remove them carefully from the egg sack within 24 hours, rinse and cure them with a filtered water, salt, sugar and soy sauce mixture overnight. They should be kept very cold in the refrigerator in a sealed glass container and kept clean. This should last up to three days, although some sources cite two weeks.
Can you freeze ikura?
Yes, you can freeze ikura. When freezing ikura, keep the ikura sealed in a clean container, preferably glass. It should be fine for three months until you are ready to prepare it.
You can buy ikura in frozen packages and enjoy them at a later date. You may also acquire them fresh and freeze them yourself, although eating fresh ikura is preferable.
How to defrost ikura
After your ikura has been in the freezer for no more than three months, you’ll want to get it ready for an amazing meal or appetizer.
To safely thaw ikura, you can either allow it to defrost inside the refrigerator or you can thaw it in cold water in your kitchen for around half an hour.
Once it’s unfrozen, enjoy the countless methods of preparing this lovely delicacy!
Can dogs eat ikura?
There is some debate about this question, but according to some experts, ikura may be problematic for dogs. Salmon is susceptible to bacteria and parasites that can wreak havoc on a dog’s body. Cooking the ikura before serving it to your dog is the safest way to go.
In addition, there are some concerns about salt sodium and mercury levels in fish, so moderation is key. Your pets need hydration just like their human counterparts, so always be sure to have a bowl of water nearby.
If you ever notice your dog exhibiting signs of digestive distress, vomiting, fever or enlarged lymph nodes, observe carefully and get an expert medical opinion as soon as you can.
Can toddlers eat ikura?
You may be tempted to offer your little one some roe just to see their reaction. Plus, picking up and little pearls and popping them into their mouths might be great fine motor skill practice and a photo-worthy scene. And hey, it’s a great source of omega-3s and vitamin D, right?
Well, yes and no. While infants and toddlers in various Asian countries were almost born eating raw fish and seafood, North American food safety experts advise that parents should hold off on feeding toddlers ikura until they reach at least five years of age. The reason for this is the fact that raw fish and seafood could have bacteria and parasites.
If your family frequents Japanese restaurants or gets sushi for take out often, perhaps offer your little ones dishes with cooked fish, vegetables or other alternatives. Another option is cooking the ikura before serving so that you won’t stay up all night wondering if you’ve introduced your child to the lovely world of food poisoning.
That being said, if you have given your young child raw ikura or other uncooked seafood dishes, watch closely for signs of gastronomical distress, fever or other reactions.
In summary, ikura, or salmon roe, is a delicious, affordable and healthy ingredient that is vibrant and versatile. Interested in other types of Japanese food? Check out these posts on sukiyaki, Nakiryu ramen and Wagyu beef.