Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: How caviar spread
Why is this delicacy so easily and cheaply available now? What should the good stuff taste like? And how does China fit in?
A currently popular Tik Tok video is posted by a guy who takes Doritos, layers them with crème fraîche and then heaps on the caviar. I have a sneaking admiration for the Doritos guy, because one of my favourite ways to eat caviar is to put a mild aloo raita on a Kettle potato chip and then pile on the caviar.
Two decades ago, anybody who had seen the Tik Tok guy or me pairing caviar with potato chips or Doritos would have been outraged. In those days, caviar was the ultimate luxury food. It was rare, it was expensive, and it was always to be treated with respect and awe. In Russia, oligarchs served the best fresh caviar and encouraged you to eat it with a mother-of-pearl spoon and, perhaps, a little black bread.
In the West, fancy restaurants served meagre quantities of caviar with great ceremony. Caviar service came to mean a small tin of caviar (rarely more than 50 grams,) served on ice with such accompaniments as onions, lemon wedges, crushed boiled-egg whites, parsley leaves and warm toast. The Russians drank cold vodka with the caviar but elsewhere in the world, champagne, with its luxury image, became the perfect partner for a food item that was way more expensive than the champagne you drank with it.
I was never a great fan of Western-style caviar service, which was said to have been invented by Petrossian, the caviar company, in Paris a century ago because a) caviar was very expensive so the accompaniments made it go further and b) because the caviar was not at its best so the onion and lemon were required to hide any flaws in the favour.
When I did get to eat caviar, I ate it directly with a spoon with buttered, (caviar and dairy fat go well together) crisp melba toast on the side for texture.
Then, around the turn of the century, even this became difficult. Nearly all (like 99 %) of caviar came from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian was bordered by the Soviet Union and Iran. Caviar is not a big deal in Iranian food, but the Soviets loved it and tightly controlled its production. The state-run caviar authority decided when a sturgeon was old enough for the caviar to be harvested, conducted quality checks, canned the caviar, controlled its export and effectively, set the global prices.
Then, the Soviet Union collapsed and the independent republics which took its place let the underworld take over. The sturgeon was over-fished. Very young fish were killed even when the caviar was not ready. And soon, the sturgeon became an endangered species. Bans (hard to enforce) were imposed on the fishing, and the export and consumption of wild caviar.
Wild caviar? Yes, because by then, people had started farming caviar. They took sturgeon from the Caspian and gave them new homes in lakes and ponds all over the world. A French company called Aquitaine farmed caviar of such quality that such chefs as Alain Ducasse began serving it at their restaurants.
What started as a trickle soon became a flood. Caviar farms sprang up in other parts of the world: in Bulgaria, Italy, Uruguay, Korea, even Myanmar. Their combined production could well have made up for the lack of ‘wild’ Caspian caviar.
But then the Chinese entered the fray. Figures are controversial in the caviar business, but it is estimated that there are 400,000 sturgeon in Chinese farms and China produces anywhere from 40 to 60% of the world’s caviar.
In other words, despite the ban on wild caviar, there is much more caviar being produced in the world than ever before. What’s more, much of it is of very good quality. Caviar is no longer a regional product from the Caspian, but a global product that any patient person can farm virtually anywhere in the world.
As a consequence, prices have fallen. If you adjust for inflation, caviar now costs one-third of what it did two decades ago. That’s why there is a caviar boom.
And it is a boom that has not passed India by. In the old days, most caviar came from smugglers or from cabin crew on international airlines who stole it from their flights and sold it to shopkeepers. Because the cold chain was often broken, it was usually pretty horrible. But now, you get legally imported caviar that comes with an FSSAI-approved label. The business is so organised that you can mail suppliers who will deliver caviar to your door, give you an invoice and take payment by bank transfer.
I spoke to Ekaterina Chalova, who I used to buy my caviar from. Chalova was born into a Russian caviar family before she came to live in India and has grown up eating and working with caviar. She says that importing caviar can be a difficult business. FSSAI has complex regulations. For instance, it does not allow caviar that uses Borax as a preservative — many European countries are not so fussy. And each shipment is individually examined.
This means that legal supplies are still undercut by grey market products. Obviously Chalova’s quality is far superior but — and this is my view, not hers — the majority of people who buy caviar buy it for snob value and have no clue what it should taste like, anyway.
Which is a shame, because good-quality caviar can be delicious. You should look for full grains (if it looks like jam, it is spoiled), for an absence of a fishy smell and for eggs that pop on your tongue. Some caviar will taste salty, and some will have a slight but satisfying after-taste of free-range eggs. But all of it will fill your mouth with a deep intense flavour that no other food possesses.
For years, Sevruga was the most popular caviar but now Ossetra (lighter coloured grains which may be larger than Sevruga) is more popular because the Ossetra sturgeon is easier to farm. Beluga is the gold standard for caviar, but these days, Beluga is hardly worth the money because the caviar is harvested too early, the eggs are tiny (they should be huge) and there is no distinctive flavour. I usually buy Ossetra from Chalova’s company (Russian Caviar House) and am more than satisfied.
The question I am asked most often is: Can caviar be vegetarian? Yes, it can; there is a way of extracting the eggs without killing the fish. Russian purists don’t like it and say that it tastes plasticky. But there is vegan caviar in the market, and as demand grows, I am sure quality and taste will improve.
Caviar is not cheap, even now, but it is no longer prohibitively expensive. I asked Rohit Singh of Rosi Gourmet Products, who supplies to the Leela and the Taj in Delhi for a price list and discovered that his entry-level can of caviar (perfectly good stuff, I have tried it) actually costs less than a bottle of Moet et Chandon or an equivalent champagne. You probably need two cans for a couple to enjoy an evening. But it is worth splashing out as it is FSSAI-certified and legally delivered to your home. (Grey market caviar is cheaper but dodgier.)
At those prices, you can be a little reckless: Eat it off your fist for a caviar bump, put it on a chip or a Dorito or do what I tried last week: caviar on curd rice with papad as the base. (Delicious!)
My guess is that as more farms come on stream, prices will go down further. And caviar will become like lobster or smoked salmon: not something you can afford regularly. But not as wildly out of our reach as it used to be.
From HT Brunch, February 25, 2023
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