Caviar is to dining what a sable coat is to a girl in evening dress.
— Ludwig Bemelmans
Etymology: The ancient Persians called roe from the sturgeon mahi-e Khayedar, meaning egg-bearing fish. The source of the Turkish word khavyar is apparently an Iranian dialectal form related to the Persian word for egg, Khayedar.
Area of Origin: Caspian Sea
Caviar is the processed and salted roe (eggs) of various types of fish, with the most well-known being the Beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea. Long known as a symbol of luxury, caviar has more recently become a source of controversy in the international food market, as overfishing, poaching practices, and pollution in the Caspian Sea have led to the classification of Beluga sturgeon as an endangered species. In an effort to curb these practices, the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of Caspian caviar in September 2005. This, of course, has forced eager caviar consumers to seek alternative means to satisfy their palates. Thankfully there are a number of alternatives on the market.
Caviar’s history is an ancient one, as sturgeon have existed since the time of the dinosaurs. Often referred to as “living fossils,” sturgeon can live to be more than 100 years old, and can grow to more than 2,500 pounds in size. These fish are also prized for their swim bladder, the source of isinglass, a gelatinous substance used to clarify wine.
The use of caviar as a foodstuff hails back to ancient times, and its noble stature is supported by the discovery of Carthaginian coins from 600 BC depicting a sturgeon. For further exploration, we recommend both Caviar, Truffles and Foie Gras: Recipes for Divine Indulgence (featured as this week’s book review) as well as the recent Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy (to be reviewed next week).
Technically speaking, true caviar is made from the roe of fish in the sturgeon family. It is defined according to the size of the grain as follows:
Beluga, the largest grain, comes from fil-mahi meaning “elephant fish”
Osetra, the medium grain, comes from tas-mahi, or “bald fish”
Sevruga, the smallest, comes from uzun-brun, or “long-nosed fish”
In addition, many people generically refer to “caviar” as the roe of any fish, and these are available in a number of varieties, including:
As caviar is a very delicate food, it must never be heated. It should always be added to dishes at the last moment to preserve the integrity of the roe.
Caviar should always be stored between 32 and 35 degrees F, and will store well for up to one year in its original tin.
Never use silver to serve or handle caviar, as the eggs react to it and take on a metallic taste. Always use mother of pearl serving spoons (or even plastic or wood), but never metal. (Yes, we realize the photo above shows it on a silver spoon, but do indulge our artistic license in this case, and do as we say instead.)
The briny nature of oysters makes them an ideal match for caviar, and this exciting combination is further enhanced by a sip of dry champagne. Caviar is often served atop blini (small buckwheat pancakes prevalent in Russia and the Ukraine) along with a dollop of crème fraîche, or as an accompaniment to smoked salmon, dill, and/or chives. Delicate flavors such as those in cream, eggs, and other rich but mild foods are also an ideal match for caviar, which has a pungent richness.
Caviar is typically used as an accent to a dish, or served as the focal point with accompaniments like chopped eggs, red onions, sour cream or crème fraîche, and toast.
Given its perfection as-is, we decided to showcase caviar in its ideal state: as an accent to some of our favorite flavors. It goes well with simple and complex dishes alike, so in some cases we have used it in canapés (hors d’oeuvres), and in other cases as part of the flavor profile of a dish.
Cucumber Cups with Caviar & Champagne Onions
Diver Scallops with Cauliflower Cream, Lemon Confit & Golden Osetra Caviar
Eggs with Caviar & Salmon Rosettes
Farfalle & Asparagus with Lemongrass Cream Sauce
Hoi Polloi Salmon
Multi-Layered Caviar Torte
Smoked Salmon and Caviar “Pizza”
Top photo: Kelly Cline
Bottom photo: Mark Tafoya