The debate: What is Caviar?
Caviar is sturgeon roe from the various species of wild sturgeon that inhabit the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Some purists will say: if it doesn’t come from the Black Sea basin it is not caviar proper. However, this is up for debate due to the fact that many other cultures around the world also use fish roe in food preparation, and it is also designated it as caviar. What follows, I hope, is a comprehensive guide to caviar across cultures so anyone can become apt to the cultural and culinary subtleties of caviar and its various uses in cuisine.
Russian and Iranian Caviar:
Historically, caviar comes from the Black Sea basin, the cultivation of such caviar being mostly controlled by the USSR and Iran, historically. However, after the break up of the Soviet Union Russia has had a ban on the fishing of wild sturgeon. Black caviar, to which it is commonly referred, comes in three types: Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, Sevruga. Beluga comes from the Beluga Sturgeon and is the rarest, hence, the most expensive. Its eggs are the largest of the four, pea-sized, and colored gray to black. Sterlet caviar is smaller with a golden color. Ossetra and Sevruga caviar are the smallest and typically gray in color. They are also the most common, therefore, the most inexpensive.
Greek/ Mediterranean Caviar:
Caviar from the Mediterranean area and some Middle Eastern areas is typically referred to as Taramas. Taramas is traditionally made from grey mullet roe, but is presently made from carp roe, probably due to gray mullet shortages. The added benefit of using carp roe instead of mullet is the fact that carp roe is more inexpensive. Tarama is typically dried fish roe, which is made into a kind of mayonnaise or spread called Tarama, or, as the Greeks call it, Taramosalata. This spread is not only delicious and healthy, it is also simple to prepare, taking only fifteen minutes or so.
In Greece, avgotaraho (αυγοτάραχο) or bottarga has been considered a delicacy since the era of the Pharaohs and it was an important element in the Ancient Greek diet. Avgotaracho is produced primarily from the grey flathead mullet caught in Greek lagoons and in the Ionian Sea. The whole mature ovaries are removed from the fish, washed with water, salted with natural sea salt, dried under the sun, and sealed in melted bees’ wax.
Avgotaracho Messolonghiou, made from fish caught in the Messolonghi-Etoliko Lagoons is a European and Greek protected designation of origin, one of the few seafood products with a PDO.
Though close to the Mediterranean brand of caviar, Italian fish roe, or Bottarga, comes exclusively from the thin-lipped gray mullet. It is also dried, but not turned into a paste or spread like the Taramas. It is typically used to go on top of bread, as an appetizer. Bottarga is very expensive as well, more expensive in the Italian & Greek markets than Taramas.
In Japanese food preparation Salmon roe is used and most commonly referred to as Ikura. Ikura is a primary ingredient in a lot of sushi preparation and Salmon roe also provides a great, inexpensive alternative to sturgeon roe. Some sushi chefs use flying fish roe as well, which is most commonly used in a form of Americanized sushi called a California roll. Another caviar delicacy in Japanese food prep is the sea urchin roe, referred to as Uni. Some Japanese food prep can also include scallop roe, which is typically frozen. Scallop roe can also be used in certain Australian dishes as well!
In the past American caviar began in the Midwest and Canada. Here, Lake Sturgeon and Short-nose Sturgeon roe began the N. American caviar industry, in the early 1900s, being exported to many parts of Europe. Later a ban was put on the harvesting of Short-nose Sturgeon roe due to over-fishing. Presently, an inexpensive and sustainable alternative to Black caviar exists in California with the harvesting of Hackleback and Paddlefish roe. Whitefish roe is also cultivated for caviar, most often referred to as American Golden. This, coupled with the increasingly popular Salmon roe, creates great alternatives to Black caviar due to the fact that it is much less expensive, and the fact that many people find the taste comparable to Russian and Iranian caviars (and, many have reported, better tasting!).
So, now that you know…
I hope that this short guide can help you along your Foodie adventures. I hope that I have been able to debunk two major myths concerning caviar: 1) That it is too expensive. Not true, of course, there are many types of caviar that are more inexpensive and plentiful than Black caviar. And 2) That caviar is NOT a versatile element in food preparation. Also not true, because many cultures besides the French and Russians use fish roe in many types of food prep. I hope that after taking this short guide through the world of caviar one can gain the sense that fish roe can be a versatile, practical and affordable ingredient in cuisine. And that it also brings an element of excitement to any hors d’oeuvre platter! For more in-depth information regarding the kinds of and uses for caviar can be found at CaviarGalore.com.
And now in more detail to the Greek Caviar: Taramas
Taramosalata (and not taramasalata, as is often mistakenly written, as it is not correct Greek,) is a wonderful mezes or appetizer made with red or white fish roe of the cod or carp fish. It is enjoyed not only during the Lenten period but all the year over.
There are two types of roe: the white and the pink one. The white one is considered to be of a higher quality than the pink one and I personally prefer the white one, not that the pink one is not good. The most common one which you will find in the restaurants is the pink one and my daughter likes it better so I usually prepare that one as well.
To make taramosalata, stale bread without the crust is soaked in water and when soft the water is squeezed out. In a blender you add the roe, as well as olive oil, lemon juice and onion and blend until creamy. Finally the bread is incorporated to form a dip of the consistency of mayonnaise.
It can be decorated with parsley, spring onion or black olives.
The recipe is included in my cookbook Mint, Cinnamon & Blossom Water, Flavours of
Or order your copy online now!