Historically known as the ‘Food of the Czars’, caviar is a gastronomic delicacy that few can afford to indulge in. Yet the unique experience of savouring caviar certainly makes it worth the price. Taru Bhatia speaks to Delhi’s top chefs about this exotic snack.
Caviar is the kind of elite delicacy that most have heard about but never really tasted. We hear about its intense effect on the taste buds, about how uniquely flavourful it is, about its rich texture. But all that talk is eclipsed by how expensive caviar actually is. To experience the flavour, you should be willing to spend big, and spend big for all but a tiny bit of caviar. A mere 30gm is usually priced at a whopping Rs 9,500. So the question arises, is spending on caviar ever worth the money? But before we answer that, it’s important to get a little background, and understand where caviar comes from.
This is what explains the cost. Caviar is pricey because the process by which it is obtained is difficult and labour-intensive. The rarest and most expensive forms of caviar come from the significantly endangered Beluga Sturgeon, a fish species. The Beluga caviar is basically the pickled roe of this sea sturgeon, and it has been treated as a high-cuisine delicacy for centuries across the Western world.
These days, you can sample caviar at top Indian restaurants as well. Guardian 20 spoke to Executive Chef Nikhil Rastogi, at Eros Hotel, New Delhi, about the effort that goes into preparing caviar. He said, “Caviar was known as the food of the Czars. The roe that is used for Beluga caviar comes from the Beluga Sturgeon, which is found in the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. It takes up to two decades for the Beluga Sturgeon to reach its maximum adult size, with the heaviest weighing around two tons. There is a lot of effort that goes into its farming and thus caviar is classified as an elite food.”
Cake of power
It isn’t only for the taste that good caviar is cherished. There are many health benefits attached to it as well. Chef Rastogi said, “Caviar is almost like a superfood, with so many benefits. It is a source of vitamins and minerals, including Omega 3, which helps promote healthy nervous, circulatory and immune systems. One serving of caviar has an adult’s daily requirement of Vitamin B12. Other nutrients included are vitamins A, E, B6, as well as iron, magnesium and selenium. Thus, it helps to improve the heart, lowers the blood pressure, boosts immune function, strengthens bones, avoids depression, helps cope with hangover and memory problems, and even helps prevents cancer.”
Back in the day, the Beluga Sturgeon was christened the “royal fish” by the British aristocracy, who needed their daily fix of caviar. But it was the Persians who first prepared and savoured the sturgeon roe. In fact, the word “caviar” actually comes from the Persian word khavyar, which means “cake of strength” or “cake of power”. The Persians used to collect the fish eggs on the Kura River in the Caucuses, which led to the discovery of Beluga caviar. And we can thank the Chinese for the tradition of salting fish roe for consumption, since it was in China that the first carp eggs were prepared in this manner.
Only the best
Caviar is generally served with chopped egg yolk and white, capers, shallots, Italian parsley, lemon and crème fraiche, complimented with buckwheat blinis and seaweed melba toasts.
Manuj Gupta, owner of The Darzi Bar & Kitchen in Delhi, spoke to us about the culinary significance of caviar. “Salt-cured sturgeon roe, which is listed as Beluga caviar on menus, is one of the most expensive foods in the world. Only a small portion of the Beluga population produces it. Their roe must be selected so that only the best is sold as caviar. Also, caviar is only produced in a few places on Earth, but gourmets all over the globe want it, hence making it expensive. The Beluga Sturgeon is considered an endangered species, so there are laws in various places forbidding its export or import,” he said.
Adding a note about caviar’s origins, Gupta said, “The roe of sturgeon was presented in banquets even in the fourth century BC, according to records from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Caviar became a major luxury delicacy later because of the Russian Czars. However, the Persians were technically the salted caviar creators. Many people give this honour in caviar history to the Russians who are famous for their Malossol caviar, which is lightly salted.”
A versatile ingredient
Caviar is salted fish roe, but not all kinds of salted fish roe qualify as caviar. Gupta said, “Caviar refers very specifically to the salted roe of sturgeon. When the word caviar appears alone, it implies that the roe is of sturgeon origin, regardless of whether the sturgeon comes from Iran, the United States, or anywhere else. However, the word caviar can be used appropriately in tandem with the name of another fish—for example, salmon caviar, whitefish caviar, or trout caviar.”
Caviar also complements and enriches the taste of other dishes and is therefore regarded as one of the most “versatile” ingredients available. Chef Kaustav of Gurgaon’s Pra Pra Prank spoke to us about caviar’s role as a special ingredient. “Caviar is a delicacy which compliments a number of dishes and enhances a dish or a dining experience,” he said. “It’s extremely versatile as an ingredient and can easily elevate an ordinary dish to the level of a gourmet dish, and equally enhance a complex dish and make it spectacular. For example, a grilled fish with beurre blanc is a very classic combination. The moment we introduce caviar to it, it turns into a gourmet dish. A butter poached lobster is a complex dish and tastes amazing on its own. But when caviar is served along with it, the dish becomes spectacular.”
Is it really caviar?
Nobody wants to spend a bomb on caviar and end up eating something that’s not quite the real deal. While many believe that salmon roe on sushi is “caviar”, experts tend to dispute that. As Chef Vaibhav Bhargava of Molecule told us in plain, straightforward language, “Salmon roe on your sushi is not caviar.”
He continued, “Caviar was originally harvested by Russian and Persian fishermen in the Caspian Sea. The term refers to unfertilised salt-cured fish eggs from different species of sturgeon, including Ossetra, Sevruga and Beluga.” And so, only these varieties of fish are authentic sources of real caviar.
There’s another test, though, to verify how good and authentic the caviar you’re served is. “Among the determinants of Caviar’s value,” said Chef Bhargava, “are colour, texture, flavour and maturity. The older, larger and lighter-coloured the eggs, the more expensive they are.”