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December 15, 2011

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'Made in China' caviar rivals eggs from Caspian Sea

CHINA'S elite has acquired a taste for the finer things in life, and caviar is the latest delicacy and status symbol, both wild imported caviar from the Caspian Sea at hundreds of US dollars a teaspoon and domestically farmed to organic and gourmet standards.

Caviar is the third of the "three Cs" of conspicuous luxury consumption - champagne, cigars and caviar. It's becoming like shark's fin and bird's nest as status delicacies.

At the same time, China, which has no tradition of serving caviar, has become one of the world's most important areas producing farmed caviar.

Caviar, known as black pearls, are the salted roe of various species of sturgeon, notably the Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga, traditionally fished from the Caspian Sea bordered by Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan.

Caspian sturgeon feed on a special variety of algae, which contributes to its flavor. Sturgeon travel long distances, feeding in different areas and on different plants and animals, making for distinctive tastes.

Caviar is famous for its briny taste (in a range of saltiness) and special texture; the tiny eggs explode with flavor in the mouth.

In the past 10 years, the wild sturgeon population has nearly collapsed in the Caspian Sea because of over-fishing and pollution. Fishing bans are in place and sturgeon is farmed; the US and Europe have banned trading in wild caviar. Still there is poaching and an underground market.

"This year, the price of wild caviar has been as high as US$2,000 per 100g and the supply is still unstable," says Ni Hao, the executive chef at Unilever, who's been sourcing caviar for more than 10 years.

Many chefs turn to farmed caviar farmed in China, in certain valleys of Zhejiang Province and in Heilongjiang Province and the Heilongjiang River (called the Amur River in Russia). Some place orders with Wang Bing, general manager of Kaluga Queen, one of the most successful "made-in-China" caviar brands that is both exported and devoured at home in five-star restaurants. Wang was a sturgeon researcher before he became a businessman. A Kaluga promotion is underway.

The cost of Kaluga is around 10 percent higher than that of caviar farmed in North America and Europe "because of higher quality," Wang says. Kaluga is one of the world's largest sturgeon and lives in the Heilongjiang River.

Wang's company is one of the world's 10 biggest producers of caviar but he wants to be in the top five in terms of quality.

"I'm trying to overcome the view that China cannot produce premier ingredients," he says.

Wang's Kaluga sturgeon farm covers 200,000 square meters in the southeastern part of Qiandao (Thousand Island) Lake in Zhejiang Province. The lake is known for its clean water, lush forestation and many islands.

"Selection of the location for farming is decisive in determining caviar quality since sturgeons need an environment like their wild environment in terms of water flow, temperature and amount of dissolved oxygen," Wang says.

He developed his sustainable caviar business seemingly by accident. Wang used to be a researcher at the Chinese Sturgeon Institute of China where he used artificial breeding techniques to increase production. He later decided that his efforts were more profitably spent on producing caviar.

Farming is difficult and risky; many things can go wrong. It takes at least seven years to raise a sturgeon from fry to reproductive maturity. Some species take even longer. Thus his first seven years were all investment and zero profit.

More expensive

The farm raises five species, including Kaluga Huso dauricus, Siberian and Russian in what Wang calls "a manipulated, close-to-wild water environment."

The Kaluga (the most expensive) taste is extremely mild, with buttery flavor and unique full-flavored aftertaste.

Wang says his Kaluga is around 10 percent more expensive than imported farmed caviar because he chooses expensive fry and practices low-density farming. With low density, the sturgeon has more space to move around and feed, so their eggs contain more protein and flavor. Thus, production is lower.

Also contributing to the high price of all caviar is the long period of raising and the complicated hand-processing and malossal, a Russian term meaning salting slightly. Malossal refers to salt at less than 5 percent of weight and the less salted caviar is generally considered the best.

Since the caviar is fragile, each egg measuring 1-3mm, great care must be taken as the roe is extracted from the fish body.

Each variety of sturgeon caviar, with its unique water and protein content, should be salted differently, Wang says. It's aged in brine for from one to four weeks, sometimes longer. A caviar master is required to ensure the right amount of salt - too much can spoil the flavor, too little and the eggs may mature.

Sixteen steps of processing - including extracting, filtering, cleaning and draining - are completed in 10 minutes at 15 degrees Celsius to ensure freshness. Then it is placed in brine for a certain period.

Three different farmed caviars are produced at Qiandao Lake: Siberian sturgeon caviar, hybrid sturgeon caviar and Kaluga caviar.

The Siberian sturgeon caviar, also the cheapest variety (936 yuan/US$146.91, per 100g), lives as long as 20 years; eggs measuring under 3mm have a shiny gray color; the taste is slightly nutty, with a light aftertaste.

The hybrid caviar (1,391 yuan per 100g) eggs have a diameter of around 3mm; the color is pearl gray with a firm texture; eggs burst with a little pressure fro the tongue. The Kaluga, also the most expensive (2,210 yuan per 100g), has eggs over 3.2mm in diameter; the color is golden gray; it has a creamy hazelnut-like flavor and a long aftertaste.

There's still difference in flavor between the farmed and the wild caviar, says Franck-Elie Laloum, chef de cuisine of Jade on 36 Kitchen at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai.

"I tasted the wild caviar in France one time in my life. The wild looks more shiny and taste is much richer and creamier," he says.

"Although we've tried our best to manipulating the wild sturgeon's living environment, it's impossible to copy their migration route. Wild sturgeons move all their life, around 1,000km and eat different aquatic plants and animals in different areas, which give the eggs a rich and complex flavor," Wang says.

Where to buy

? City'super Shanghai (LG2, Shanghai IFC Mall, 8 Century Ave, Pudong)

? Carefour Gubei (268 Shuicheng Rd S.)

? Fresh Market at Jiuguang Department Store (B1, 1618 Nanjing Rd W.)

? City Shops

The prices (from city'super Shanghai)

? For the imported

Lumpfish Caviar - Black (Germany), 100g, 64 yuan

Lumpfish Caviar - Red (Germany), 100g, 64 yuan

Red lumpfish roes (France), 100g, 79.8 yuan

Peseaviar Avruga Screw top jar (Spain), 55g, 118 yuan

? For the domestic

Kaluga Queen Schrenckii (Zhejiang Province, China), 30g, 356 yuan

Kaluga Queen Bearii, 30g, 315 yuan

Kaluga Queen Hybrid, 30g, 465 yuan

Kaluga Queen Oscietra, 30g, 552 yuan

Chef Franck-Elie's tips on appreciating top caviar

1. Open the contain and smell; there should be an intense, fresh scent of the sea.

2. Note the appearance. Good caviar eggs are big, shiny and sometimes golden-brown.

3. Taste it. The texture should be firm, with an excellent "pop" and explosion of flavors of the sea and of hazelnut.

Serving caviar

The ideal way to serve caviar is debated: Purists say the caviar alone is enough; that way its essential taste can be appreciated.

"Just place it in an iced bowl and use a small, nonmetal spoon, eating slowly. Place a small amount on the tongue and let the grains burst to release all the flavor on the palate," says Hemish Pollitt, executive chef at M on the Bund.

Chef Hemish recommends serving the classical French way, pairing it with a glass of champagne since the bubbling texture of the drink works well with the explosions of little eggs on the tongue.

The Russian way is to pair nutty, creamy caviar with a smooth vodka that coats the mouth and feels somewhat oily.

Some people serve caviar with light-flavored ingredients, such as mushroom, or with seafood.

Whatever food is chosen should not overpower the caviar.


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