Do you know what’s salmon roe in Japanese? Have you ever tried the tiny orange balls that usually come with sushi? They are called ikura Sushi. The origin of the word is believed to be the Russian word Ikra. In case you are no culinary expert, ‘roe’ colloquially means ‘fish egg.’ Thus, simply put, Ikura is the name of the salmon’s eggs.
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If you are an avid sushi eater, like me, you have probably tried this salty goodness. Roe sushi is an exquisite Japanese delicacy that has become incredibly popular over the years. Funny enough, the Japanese did not eat salmon, and much less roe, up until the 1980s. Nonetheless, thanks to the so-called Norwegian Campaign, salmon is now a vital ingredient in Japanese cuisine- but that is an entirely different story.
What is Ikura Sushi or Salmon Roe Sushi?
In my opinion, salmon roe has a very unique taste and a pleasant mouthfeel. Eating Ikura is a very atypical experience when compared to other Japanese ingredients. For me, it is more about sensations and less about the taste itself. The tiny spheres burst with the first bite allowing its juices to entice your palate.
Overall salmon roe is very salty and ‘fishy’! In Japan, Ikura would be described as rich in umami; meaning rich in ‘savoriness.’ Furthermore, it differs from other roes used is traditional makis as it usually is eating it alone. As it turns out, you can also enjoy Ikura with quail egg’s yolk to further intensify the taste.
Ikura sushi, also known as roe sushi, typically refers to the most straightforward presentation of the salmon’s eggs. Even though it can be used to top any type of maki, it is almost always prepared as a Gunkan-maki. So, the right question will be: What is a Gunkan-maki?
Without getting too technical, as I am no chef or sushi expert, a Gunkan-maki is what we commoners called the ‘battleship maki’ presumably because of its shape. It has only two key ingredients: salmon roe and nori (Japanese seaweed). However, as I mentioned before, you can add a quail’s egg yolk to enhance the flavor or sumeshi (vinegared sushi rice) for a fuller meal.
However, if you want a more detailed explanation, below, I will share a recipe given to me by an authentic Japanese Itamae or sushi chef.
Ikura Gunkan Recipe
As I said before Gunkan means ‘war boat’ or ‘ship’ and references the small baskets made out of nori that can be filled with different ingredients depending on the recipe you choose. However, one of the most traditional Japanese methods is the Ikura Gunkan. As you may have guessed, it is filled with fresh salmon roe.
- Sushi rice (3 cups)
- Salmon Roe (150 grams)
- Nori Seaweed (4 leaves)
- Quail eggs (optional)
- Soy sauce (to taste)
- Ginger (to taste)
- The first thing you would need to do is prepare the rice. Keep in mind that the sumeshi can break or make your dish. I suggest you go for 3 cups of rice and 1 1/2 cups of water and boil it in a pressure cooker for about 20 minutes.
- Once the rice is done, set it apart and continue with the remaining ingredients.
- Roast the nori seaweed leaves by placing them over a frying pan (or skillet) at medium heat. The goal is to end up with a deep green-colored seaweed. The best way to know if it is fully cooked is by the shift in the smell. When so, remove and place them on a rack to cool.
- Once they are cold, you must cut the nori leaves into strips (lengthwise). If done right, you will have four strips on each sheet, which will make a total of sixteen strips.
- Take the salmon roe and drain it well until the tiny balls are as dry as possible. You can use a cloth strainer for better results.
- Take the already chilled rice and start making 2-3cm balls. It is suggested to use a tablespoon of rice for each Ikura Gunkan.
- A quick tip: wet your hands to avoid any rice sticking to the palm of your hands.
- Toll the rice balls with the nori strips. The rice should be on the bottom and the ‘shiny’ side of the seaweed facing down. Gently press each one and set aside.
- To finish, fill the remaining holes with salmon roe. You can use a teaspoon to do it very carefully.
- For extra flavor, you can add a fried quail egg in between the rice and the salmon roe.
- Serve with soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi as you would generally do with any other sushi types.
There you have it, delicious salmon egg sushi ready to eat!
Where to Buy Salmon Roe?
Cool, you might be down to jumping into the sushi-making world but realized that you have no clue as to where you can actually buy roe. Do not worry! I’ve been there too- and let me tell you it is easier to find than what you would think!
Salmon roe can be easily bought at local Asian food markets or online in specialized gourmet websites. If you are not too picky about the taste, you can also find lesser quality Ikura on sites like Amazon. However, it is usually cheaper and fresher when purchased in Asian markets.
Also, a ‘must-know’ is that Ikura is sold by the Japanese as ‘sushi quality.’ At first, I thought it meant it was not as good as other roe types. But, much to my surprise, it is basically the same thing, only that high-end stores package them to overcharge. So, you are welcome!
Besides, if you feel like roe is something you can include to your everyday diet, it may be smarter to purchase a Sujiko. A Sujiko is simply a skein of roe. If you buy a Sujiko and then curated it at home, you will be saving a lot of money. Nonetheless, you should first learn how to manipulate it as it is, after all, a very delicate ingredient.
How to Curate Salmon Roe?
Curating salmon roe saves a lot of money, but it can also be very unpleasant if you have no prior experience. The process is simple as you only need Kosher salt (not iodized salt), water, and of course the salmon skein or roe sack.
- Start by dissolving one cup of kosher salt on three quarts of water warmed to 38°C. Whisk with a plastic or wooden spoon; avoid metal utensil as they alter the fish eggs’ taste. Once the salt is dissolved, set aside.
- You will then want to rinse the skein of any residual blood under cool running water. There is a thin membrane that holds everything together, do not worry; you can leave it there.
- Next, add the skein to the bowl where you previously dissolved the salt. Here, you will see how the Ikura will turn from a clear orange to a milky orange color. This change in color is quite normal, it is simply the fish reacting to the brine. Let it soak for 20-30 minutes.
- You should prepare a separate bowl with a filter and proceed to remove the skein from the salt. Do not throw away the brine, as you will need it later. Using your fingers, remove the membrane carefully, and rinse with warm water.
- You must remove every single membrane, including those smaller ones that hold each egg together. After you have removed all the membranes and rinsed the eggs well, you can slip the roe into the brine again.
- Now, the color of the Ikura will turn from milky orange to clear orange! Strain the eggs into a glass container and place it in the fridge. Remember no to refrigerate the freshly curated roe.
Different Colors of ikura
Salmon eggs vary in color and can go from pale yellowish-orange to an intense orange-reddish. Thus, do not be alarmed, if you encounter roe which orange is less intense. The color depends on a series of important factors such as species (there are over seven different salmon species worldwide), water temperature, age, and manipulation. Also, note that if a salmon egg is not fertilized, it can lose its bright hue and turn to a cloudy-looking orange.
The intense red color of Ikura comes from its antioxidant pigments known as carotenoids. It has a lot to do with the fish’s diet that the salmon get from their diet!
What Is Roe in Sushi
When we refer to fish roe in sushi, we tend to think in the sturgeon: the famous caviar. However, as we have seen above, there are other great alternatives that are equally delicious and, in some cases, even more nutritious. This is the case of the salmon roe, which is particularly rich in protein and a great source of vitamins.
Highly valued food in Japanese cuisine, the orange roe is used mainly for sushi. But on this side of the world, it has become an exquisite addition to appetizers and main courses that go from salads to plates of pasta.
The salmon roe is very rich in proteins and vitamins.
However, it has a downside; it presents a high content of the so-called ‘bad cholesterol.’ Thus, it is advisable to be eaten in moderation. But aside from this, it has essential nutrient that plays an important role in tissue regeneration and plasma creation.
On the other hand, the type-B vitamins found in salmon eggs promote the good functioning of our nervous system and help with the absorption of glucose, improving heart conditions. Moreover, salmon roe also contains vitamin E, which prevents cell aging! Great if you want to keep looking young.
Salmon roe contains calcium and phosphorus, necessary in the formation and maintenance of bones and teeth, as well as selenium, which protects our cardiovascular system. They are also rich in vitamin D, necessary for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and vitamin C that may help reduce the risk of cancer.
As we will see later, salmon roe doesn’t have many ‘rules’ as the caviar does. In this sense, we can catalog the salmon roe as cheaper caviar, but without misinterpreting the word. Some brands are as expensive as the ‘regular caviar’ and sushi restaurants around the world present them as luxurious.
On the other hand, the true caviar is a product of the sturgeon’s roe, a fish that inhabits the Caspian Sea (between Russia and Iran). However, it can also be found in a few rivers of Italy, Spain, and the South of France. The savory sturgeon eggs have an ancient origin, but I don’t want to bore you with fish roe history.
Suffix to say caviar has always been a synonym of eccentricity and luxury. More so now that is increasingly expensive and scarce. The caviar regulation states that, in order to be authentic, it can only come from four species of sturgeon — Beluga and Osetra are the most famous. Besides, the fish must be raised sustainably, since fishing it has been banned in several countries.
Caviar experts say that it should be served cold and never at room temperature. Proper caviar manipulation includes placing it chilled and served cold over ice to maintain its temperature. Caviar should always be refrigerated at 4° C.
As you can see, caviar comes with rules!
Overall, all caviar should not be served in a steel plate and should not be eaten with silverware, since this can totally alter the flavor to a bitter metallic taste. Roe should be eaten and served in glass, plastic or ceramic utensils to preserve its flavor.
Another thing to keep in mind is that roe should always be served and consumed in small bites – smaller than a tablespoon. The idea is to experience the taste without being overwhelmed by the flavor or texture.
As well as the salmon roe, the caviar is often served on bread or unsalted crackers, or on tiny little traditional Russian pancakes which is called blini. Note that, having caviar with these will completely enhance the whole food experience. Keep in mind that the caviar should not be crushed; it is deposited on the toast, slice, or cookie.
As we know, caviar is usually sold in tiny little containers destined to be consumed in one serving; do not store what remains on a container. Keeping it open will change its flavor and will cause spoilage quickly.
Last but not least, take into account what you are drinking. Especially when having sturgeon eggs. Experts say that iced vodka is one of the best escorts for good caviar, although champagne is typically served. Whatever the egg, experts indicate that to ensure the best quality, the roe should not be too salty or too ‘fishy.’ Moreover, the balls must be whole, not too big, brilliant and of fine taste to the palate.
As we can see salmon roe and caviar are very different and have completely different uses, in this sense, we now know that one is extremely expensive and luxurious and the other one is more common, accessible and might be used in different cuisines.
Other Types of Fish Roe
Fish roe is the mass forming the fish in little egg shapes. Usually, they are found inside a bag with an oval shape in the supermarket. Depending on the type of fish, they might be consumed raw, cooked, fried, or even sautéed. As you might have guessed, there are many different types of fish roe.
If you assumed that there are different types of fish roe, good for you! I was under the impression that all fish roe was caviar. Thankfully for us, this is not the case! Some fish eggs can delicious and very expensive, while others are good for your health. Furthermore, there are even less attractive roes that have very high levels of cholesterol.
Have you tried carp roe?
The flying fish roe?
Or the mullets or lumpfish eggs?
Some people, especially in Europe, love cod and tuna roe; although uncommon in Japanese cuisine these are also quite exquisite. Fish eggs vary significantly in shape, taste, and color. For instance, carp eggs are small, light pink, and somewhat salty eggs. Cod eggs are also small and pink, but they are lightly salted. Moreover, cod eggs are usually eaten dried and smoked.
The flying fish eggs are often small yellow eggs. Although you can also spot them in black! They are curiously crispy and well known in Japan as tobiko. Just like the Ikura, flying fish eggs are commonly used in sushi dishes.
Other more ‘regular’ fish eggs are that of the trout. They are larger than the others mentioned above. And of course, we have the sturgeon roe, the famous and expensive caviar. There are many varieties, depending on the thickness, place of origin, and packaging.
There are many ways to prepare fish roe, but usually, they are cooked in boiling and after sautéed. When not used in sushi, fish eggs, are customarily served with unsalted bread or crackers. I suggest you try them with Norwegian bread, as the combination is simply to die for!
Now that you know the different types of fish roe, you will be able to select your favorite and prepare them according to with your taste.
Salmon are powerful long-distance swimmers migrating between rivers and oceans. In both places, they face growing dangers, especially overfishing, pollution, and the presence of artificial barriers that prevent their natural displacement.
To complete their life cycle, these fish need to reach their place of spawning in rivers and lakes, where they die, traveling from the sea where they are fed. The damage caused to any of its habitats severely affects its population. Some other groups of unrelated bony fishes, as sturgeons, share this double life with salmon and face similar threats.
The life cycle of salmon begins when an egg hatches in quiet stream gravel. The salmon travels to a river or lake, grows and continues its journey to the sea. At sea, salmon remains for several years, until he returns as an adult to spawn, often in the same stream where he was born.
Throughout history, humans have colonized valleys and built cities and towns, increasing the number of sediments and sewage in the border of the rivers. As time passed, this process was intensified, and new threats appeared (e.g., water pollution caused by industry, mining, oil exploitation, agrochemicals development.)
All of these changes caused the degradation of the aquatic environment. One single water exploitation ended the Yankee River salmon, in the west of the United States, around 1940.
The natural flow of the rivers is increasingly interrupted by dikes and dams. This is dangerous for the salmon since it prevents them from reaching their spawning areas. Huge dams built in the basin of the Columbia River (the fourth largest in the United States) caused the extinction of many populations of the Pacific Salmon. Despite the millions of dollars dedicated to its recovery, the salmon population remains low.
Another threat to salmon lies in the growing demand for their roe.
Due to its high trading on the market, poaching is a lucrative business, especially in Russia and across Asia. In the Atlantic, salmon population is meager! It is believed that in the last 20 years the salmon population has been reduced by half.
In the future, climate change may be the worst threat for these fish. The increase in temperature of seas and rivers can be lethal for the salmon ‘biological clock’, delaying the spawning or affecting its maturation.
Currently, most of the salmon that are sold in North America and Europe are raised in freshwater pools, or in floating installations as they do in Scotland. Fishing was considered an alternative to overfishing, but the species grown at high densities are prone to diseases and parasites, then extending to wild populations.
Modern commercial fishing has endangered species across Scandinavia, Russia, Alaska, and around the great rivers. Nowadays, it is essential to prevent salmon endangerment. Thus, be aware of where and how you consume Ikura!
Today you learned a lot of the Japanese delicacy that is Ikura sushi. Hopefully, you will soon have the chance to experience it yourself! I especially recommend trying it, if you are a sushi fan like me or if you are simply looking to expand your culinary horizons. Yes, it is true that tempurized rolls and traditional nigiri might seem like a safer choice. But, trust me, salmon roe is both delicious and nutritious.
It is important to stress the fact that Ikura does not need to be expensive and is actually quite accessible as you might have gathered from the information presented above. Although, there is always the option of curating it yourself or buying it at local Asian markets.