To Caviar Or Not To Caviar?
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What is it about caviar that excites? Is it due to the image gourmands, chefs, long-passed Russian czars and clever marketing portrays? Or is it truly a luxury food that genuinely just tastes divine?
I'd wager it's a mix of both.
The question I posed in this article's headline has been a recurring curiosity of mine, originated from a general fascination with caviar. I am amused by the notion that adding a spoonful of prized sturgeon eggs can almost instantly elevate a dish. Sure, its taste may be subjective, but you can't deny how easy it is to pair caviar with any food. The possibilities seem endless.
Momofuku famously paired fried chicken with osetra caviar. A plate of creamy, perfectly buttery scrambled eggs practically demands a generous spoonful. Caviar can turn unsalted potato chips and sour cream, a relatively unpretentious combo, into a luxe affair. Add a flute of dry, slightly mineral bubbly and you are, for all intents and purposes, living the life.
On this premise, I wanted to discover what others thought about caviar when it came to the subject. I saw a photo of fried chicken (not Momofuku) with caviar and decided to see if others shared my pro-caviar culinary fantasies. Sixteen weeks later, I now have a recurring To Caviar? poll series and the vast responses I get from my little social experiment is proof that caviar holds a special place in the pantheon of luxury foods.
Caspian Caviar House
My public adoration for caviar caught the attention of Caspian Caviar House, one of the only two Iranian farm producers in Malaysia at the moment. They were keen to let me try their top-grade caviar, partner up to give my readers a discount and speak to a chef on the subject, so naturally, I agreed.
Touting to only have "the best caviar in the world", Caspian Caviar House is the exclusive agent and distributor of the Iranian farm – Darya Caviar Talesh (D.C.T) – located on the Caspian Sea coast. For those unaware, the term caviar refers to roe from wild sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea and only sturgeon eggs can qualify as caviar. It's almost geo-protected like champagne and cognac, but as long the eggs come from a sturgeon, it's technically caviar.
Beluga sturgeon, native to the waters of the Caspian Sea, produces the highest grade caviar. According to Caspian Caviar House, the beluga sturgeon is the largest among its species and is so rare that only approximately 100 fishes are caught every year, as this particular sturgeon takes up to 20 years to reach maturity. Furthermore, beluga caviar comes in various colours, ranging from the lightest of blue to black. The lightest-coloured roe fetches a higher premium, as milder flavours and appearance are telltale signs that it's harvested from older fishes. The price similarities between the age statement of whisky and that of caviar are comparable; the higher the age, the higher the price.
I'm also told that D.C.T is the first private company to farm, breed and manually feed wild sturgeon, with pollution-free waters used in the farm coming from the southern part of the Caspian Sea to ensure the highest quality caviar possible.
Caspian Caviar House generously sent me a 50g tin of Royal Beluga caviar to do a tasting before I put pen to paper, so to speak. "What's with the term 'royal' to describe this particular caviar?" I hear you saying to yourself. Well, I'm told by the maison that the term denotes the grade of the eggs in terms of uniformity, size, colour, maturity, the separation of the egg grains, aroma, lucidity, and the shell's firmness. Egg sizes bigger than 3.4mm in circumference often fall in the "royal" category. Caspian Caviar House's Royal Beluga measures in at 3.7mm.
In Iran, the term "royal" and "imperial" are interchangeable for caviar production. Through my research, however, I find that while there are specific standards for caviar grading, the naming convention of these grades is really up to the farm or producer. Hence why you'll hear terms like "presidential", "tsar", or "special reserve" sometimes thrown around.
Not wanting to take the chance to pair it with anything that may diminish the taste and quality of such high-grade caviar, I opted to have it traditionally with blinis, sour cream, chives and shallots.
Highlights From Chew On This' To Caviar? Poll
The first word that came to mind to describe these tiny black pearls was "elegant". I could literally taste its pure, unadulterated quality the first caviar-only mouthful I took. Gentle salinity hits the palate first before a more concentrated yet refined saltiness takes over when the somewhat firm beads pop and reveal their natural flavour. Just as my senses begin to adjust to what I can only describe as the optimum level of salinity, a certain mild creaminess washes over that very faintly evokes the aftertaste of cashew paste.
When eaten with blinis, the soft and fluffy Russian pancakes that I have a hunch was created just to ferry caviar into mouths, the buttery canvas the pancake provides acted as the perfect neutral canvas for the Royal Beluga's flavours to take the limelight. A small dollop of sour cream softens and counters the caviar's saltiness with a hint of acidity.
The ideal way to eat caviar is with a mother-of-pearl spoon, as pearls are neutral and hold no flavour. Therefore, these spoons are often used as the perfect, opulent vessel to ferry your expensive caviar from tin to food or tin to the back of your hand. If you're in a pinch, opt for plastic, but never use metal as its properties may harm and damage the natural flavours of caviar.
All praises aside, is caviar worth its high price tag? I say yes. Within means, of course. What you're paying for is quality and time, especially if you're gunning for the top. It's delicious, luxurious food that takes a brand like Caspian Caviar House 20 years to produce after all.
If you're keen to try the very best caviar, Caspian Caviar House is offering my readers a 15% discount for their next purchase if you just use my name when making your order. Here's the price breakdown:
Royal Beluga 25g: RM700 > RM595
Royal Beluga 50g: RM1100 > RM935
Interview With The Chef
Joining me in my quest to better understand the role caviar plays in the world of gastronomy is chef Raymond Tham. Many know him as the affable chef-owner of modern European and modern Malaysian restaurants Skillet At 163 and Beta KL. He has graciously taken some time off his busy schedule creating mooncakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival to answer some of my questions. Let's get right into it.
TC: Why is Iranian caviar touted as "the best in the world"?
RT: It's subjective and depending on what you serve Iranian caviar with. If I pair such high-grade caviar with something like fried chicken, it would be a waste because the roe is so delicate. You need something neutral.
I'd say it is also historical. The Russians have always been credited as the ones who made caviar a premium and luxurious delicacy. Iran has long exported caviar to Russia and France, adding to that image. As demand increased, supply couldn't keep up, eventually leading to sturgeon farming along the Caspian Sea. Caspian Caviar House told me that their farm is actually located only 200 metres away from the sea.
TC: Can you describe your first experience with caviar from Caspian Caviar House?
RT: I was trying to create a new dish with hamachi and pineapple ponzu sauce in the kitchen when I first tried to incorporate Caspian Caviar House's caviar. For me, the caviar, which was beluga grade, was too delicate to go with the more robust flavours of the sauce. I think Iranian caviar should be eaten with simple buttered toasts alongside accompaniments like chopped eggs and shallots.
TC: How do you serve caviar at your restaurants?
RT: We serve it classically, together with crackers, chopped egg whites, and other traditional condiments. I usually pair caviar with seafood or fish dishes and I hardly ever use it with poultry or red meats. In Beta, we used to serve a thin mini blini-like pancake that we call apam balik to sandwich caviar with chives and cream. When dealing with such an expensive item, you really want it to shine.
TC: I agree; it's a pretty well-balanced product. The taste is exquisite and the texture of the eggs hits a sweet spot that is neither too firm nor too soft on the tongue. What should you do and don't do with caviar?
RT: Enjoy your caviar with either dry champagne or vodka, which I think is the best pairing. Try to avoid red and white wine; it just doesn't go so well with caviar. Also, avoid pairing caviar with strong and pungent flavours or even anything spicy.
TC: Why is caviar so expensive?
RT: Iranian caviar is expensive because it takes so long for the sturgeon to reach the ideal level of maturity to produce the best quality caviar. If I'm not mistaken, there's a minimum of at least eight years for the fishes to reach before they can be harvested for the entry-grade caviar. This maturity definitely adds to the flavour of the caviar.
TC: I've noticed that more and more caviar brands are coming into the market. Is consumer demand there?
RT: There's definitely a demand for it and Malaysia has many affluent individuals willing to pay to enjoy it.
TC: What are your customer's responses to caviar?
RT: Our customers have said that they love Iranian caviar because it tastes really delicate and does not have a strong fishiness, which is something some can't actually stomach. I think the levels of salinity for Caspian Caviar House's caviar is just right.
TC: What do you think makes caviar so unique as a food item?
RT: For me, I think that it does have a certain charm to it in terms of flavour. During the lockdown, I managed to have a tin of royal beluga caviar for a tasting and I will admit that it does taste good. Last night, I actually started craving caviar in preparation for our interview today, haha. So much so that I actually thought of buying some caviar to pair with scrambled eggs. Caviar works best with either creamy or more neutral foods to showcase its flavours.