Ask Ali: The Basics

Today, we will get a chance to sit down and ask Ali some questions about caviar.  This is our first post in this series and we will focus on the basics.  We will continue to do this once a week.

Q. First off, who is Ali?

Ali in the NY Daily News at the Fancy Food Show

A. In addition to being a caviarblog.com contributor, Ali is the Product Specialist and Vice President at Pacific Plaza Imports where he has worked for the past eight years. Ali first tasted caviar at the age of one. He has traveled the world tasting caviar, having been to the Caspian and Black Seas in addition to farms all over the world.  Pacific Plaza is a purveyor of fine foods and distributes caviar under the Plaza de Caviar label. Customers include over 10 Michelin rated restaurants and a variety of retailers including Costco, BevMo, and Draegers.

Q. What is caviar?

A. This is an interesting question. Generally speaking, caviar is the unfertilized eggs of sturgeon.  Scientifically, sturgeon refers to the fish of the Acipenseridae family. The two main genomes are Acipenser and Huso. Common names for fish in the Acipenser family include White Sturgeon, Siberian Sturgeon, and Russian Sturgeon.

The common names for the Huso are Beluga and Keluga. Beluga is the species Huso Huso and is probably the most recognizable type of caviar, although it is currently prohibited in the United States due it being an endangered species. Traditionally, the other common names for caviar other than Beluga were Osetra, Sevruga, and Sterlet.  These are also endangered species. In fact, all wild sturgeons are endangered. That is why farmed sturgeons dominate the caviar landscape now and are seen as the future of caviar…a very exciting future.

Q. Where does caviar come from?

the caspian sea

A. Caviar originally came from the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest land-locked lake.  The Caspian Sea is a saltwater lake located between Russia and Iran. Due to overfishing in the Caspian, caviar production eventually spread to the Black Sea and other parts of the world.

As mentioned above, the sturgeons that produce caviar are endangered and now farmed caviar is predominant.  The farming of caviar has allowed this delicacy to spread all across the globe.  Top farms can be found in Bulgaria, Uruguay, Israel, and the United States.

Q. What is the process of caviar consist of?

A. After the unfertilized eggs are removed from the sturgeon, they are cleansed in either water or saline solution. Then they are processed with salt for preservation and flavor. This process is done by hand by a trained expert. After processing, they are packed into a tin and pressed. This releases some of the oils from the eggs. The tins are then rotated for a period of two to six weeks so that the salt is distributed evenly throughout the tin.

Q. What about all the other types of fish roe that are labeled caviar and are not sturgeon?

A. Legally speaking, when the word “caviar” is used alone on a label, it refers to sturgeon roe.  Other fish roe can use term caviar as long as it is preceded by the name of the fish. Thus it is common to see Salmon Caviar, Paddlefish Caviar, Hackleback Caviar, Trout Caviar and others.  In this case, caviar is used to describe the process above being applied to these other types of fish.

Q. When eating caviar, why should you not use metal utensils?

mother of pearl set

A. The metal in a spoon can oxidize the caviar.  This will alter the taste of the caviar, which is obviously undesirable. Thus, you see most caviar served with mother of pearl spoons.

Mother of pearl comes from the inner shell layer of an oyster or mussel. Mother of pearl is pH balanced so won’t affect the acidity or flavor of the caviar. If mother of pearl isn’t available, then wood or bone spoons are preferred. Plastic is also preferred over metal. Another way to eat caviar, perhaps the purest way is to eat it is directly off your hand. But you will probably still need a utensil to get it from the jar to your hand.

-ali & matt

2 thoughts on “Ask Ali: The Basics

Add yours

  1. Hi Andrea,

    Thanks for posting. We’re glad to have a fellow caviar enthusiast here at caviarblog.com. You also bring up an interesting topic.

    As you can see from Ali’s answer above, Beluga is used to describe caviar from the Huso Huso species of sturgeon. As of right now, the Huso Huso has not been farmed successfully in America, although there are some efforts underway here and abroad. As for caviar you may see labeled ‘Beluga’ from here in the US, you should look at the ingredients. It should tell you the species of fish, which will probably be something other than the Huso Huso. There are several reasons it is difficult to farm the Huso Huso and we will get into them in our next Ask Ali feature which will take a more in-depth look at the current state of farmed sturgeon.

    Thanks again,
    The Caviarblog Team

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