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Digest Step Aside Gin, The Asian Caviar Boom Is Here

Step Aside Gin, The Asian Caviar Boom Is Here

Step Aside Gin, The Asian Caviar Boom Is Here
Photo: Miyazaki Caviar 1983
By Gavin Yeung
By Gavin Yeung
May 17, 2021
Meet the Asian and Chinese caviar producers who have been adapting this age-old delicacy to the demands of the region—and carving out a new future for caviar in the process

For the past decade in Asia, gin has been the poster child for the localisation of an overseas food invention—today, there are hundreds of gin brands across the continent, from Malaysia to India and South Korea. Much less known and arguably just as much of a success story, however, is the Asian caviar boom that has been underway since at least the late 2000s.

While the number of caviar producers in the region comes nowhere near that of gin—largely due to the massive investment of time and money, and high degree of uncertainty that budding sturgeon farmers must contend with before reaching profitability—the flourishing of a distinctly Asian caviar landscape is a feat unto itself, considering the region's vastly different environment to that of the sturgeon's traditional home in Siberia and the Caspian Sea. 

In doing so, they have created a product that not only equals Russian or Iranian caviar in quality, but in some cases even surpasses that—all the while achieving a lower price point that has made caviar more accessible than it has ever been.

That China today is unequivocally considered the world's largest producer of high-quality caviar today (farming one-third of global caviar production) is a resounding testament to the role that Asia will play in the future of the luxury delicacy. Below, we round up the most prominent Asian caviar producers to look out for.

See also: Affordable Caviar By The Kilo? Meet The Hong Kong Brand Making This A Reality

China

The man-made Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang Province is the epicentre of China's—and the world's—caviar production, a stunning feat that in the past decade and a half has upended Russia and Central Asia's traditional stranglehold on the global caviar trade. The lake is the home of Kaluga Queen, which produces 60 tons of caviar each year—giving it the title of the world's largest producer of sturgeon roe. Despite this mass production, the brand has won plaudits from trade connoisseurs for its premium quality, often rivalling that of its Western counterparts.

Today, Kaluga Queen employs 300 people and contains 200,000 sturgeon, some of which can grow up to four metres in length and weigh 300 kilograms. The fish stock can be divided into five breeds, including the Huso Hybrid, a cross-breed of the Kaluga and Amur sturgeon. Despite the difficulty that remains with marketing Kaluga Queen's Chinese origins, the brand's portfolio is second to none, and includes the likes of the famed House of Petrossian, Lufthansa's first-class cabins, and 21 of the 26 three-Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris.

Malaysia

Located in the Malaysian state of Perak, T'lur Caviar is the first company in the world to successfully reap caviar from coldwater fish in a tropical climate, and has scooped up armfuls of awards from aquaculture associations for its efforts. Imported from China in the early 2000s, T'lur Caviar's sturgeon number 20,000 strong and can be divided into seven types: Kaluga, Beluga, Siberia, Amur, Ossetra, Hybrid, and Paddlefish. They inhabit a farm that spans 3.3 acres, though T'lur's investors are in the process of acquiring 60 acres more.

After harvesting, the caviar is mixed with Bario salt from Sarawak, Himalayan salt and sea salt, changing their greyish colour to a greenish-black; the eggs are then aged for two weeks before being packaged for retail. The product is primarily sold to restaurants, and features in prominent Malaysian venues like Sitka Studio, ATAS Modern Malaysian Eatery, and Entier French Dining.

See also: Why It's A Big Deal That T'lur Caviar Is Being Harvested In Our Waters

Vietnam

Caviar de Duc is the brainchild of Vietnam's eccentric 'Caviar King' Le Anh Duc, a 43-year-old Russian-educated businessman who has interests in everything from real estate to sea planes. Founded in 2007 with the mission to popularise reasonably-priced Vietnamese caviar at fine dining institutions around the world, Duc opened a farm on a lake near the city of Dalat, flying in the face of expert advice warning against sturgeon production in Vietnam due to the country's tropical climate. Beginning with 50,000 fingerlings, it wasn't until 2013 that Caviar de Duc was able to make its first harvest of caviar.

Today, Caviar de Duc boasts more than half a million sturgeon across six production facilities across Vietnam—essentially repurposed hydroelectric dam reservoirs leased from the government. Forgoing quantity for quality, the brand does not use hormones or antibiotics on the sturgeon, and keeps them in larger cages to reduce stress levels in the fish. Caviar de Duc's main export market is Russia, although its caviar can be found at many of Vietnam's five-star hotels, such as JW Marriott, Sheraton and InterContinental.

Japan

It's no surprise that Japan, a nation of gastronomes, is home to one of the first true Asian caviars. As its name suggests, Miyazaki Caviar 1983 is produced in the southern prefecture of Miyazaki, a region already famed for its premium wagyu beef; its mountainous geography provides pristine waters and a stable year-round temperature conducive to raising sturgeon. 

The '1983' in the brand name refers to the year that the company first sourced its fish—the intervening years were spent experimenting with different species, breeding methods and harvesting processes, before the product was finally deemed to have met their criteria and launched nationwide in 2013. Today, Miyazaki Caviar 1983 is produced under the strictest standards: workers spend up to two hours using tweezers to remove contaminants from the eggs, which are then scanned for radiation and heavy metals, before being flash-frozen for optimal freshness.

The final product has a salinity of less than 3 per cent, imparting a creamier, more subtle taste. This makes it a suitable pairing for sake, as well as in more delicate Japanese dishes like udon or ochazuke (tea rice).

Related: The Best Wagyu In Japan, According To Richard Ekkebus

South Korea

South Korea's Namhan River supplies the Korean peninsula's only caviar farm with fresh water, in which Almas Caviar's 50,000 Caspian Sea sturgeon swim. It's these waters that owner and former economist Han Sang-hun credits with the premium quality of his caviar, thanks to the steady alkaline balance and temperature—a result of the lack of factories along the river as well as the presence of a nearby dam that controls the flow of water.

Han began sturgeon farming in 1992 when he brought two hundred sturgeon back from a business trip to Russia. His exacting standards, the uncertainty of raising sturgeon, and kill-free harvesting processes—wherein a small incision is made in the egg sac and the eggs massaged out, allowing the fish to live another day—have not made it an easy journey. By Han's estimate, 72 other sturgeon farmers in Korea have failed where he has succeeded, due in large part to the high cost of upkeep (between US$60,000 and $100,000 a month just to feed them).

Almas is also unusual for allowing their sturgeon 10-12 years to mature, compared to the industry standard of 5-7 years, which Han believes results in better quality roe. Meanwhile, their specialty Beluga caviar is harvested when the fish reaches a minimum of 20 years in age. Preservatives and additives are eschewed, and the caviar is minimally salted at 3 to 3.5 per cent to allow the natural flavours to shine through. Today, Almas is widely recognised in Korea, and exports to Japan and the West Coast of the United States too.

Taiwan

Yu Zhi Xiang caviar on a local specialty dish at the farm's on-site restaurant (Photo: 魚之鄉 谷關/Facebook)
Yu Zhi Xiang caviar on a local specialty dish at the farm's on-site restaurant (Photo: 魚之鄉 谷關/Facebook)

Founded by a father and now operated by the daughters, Yu Zhi Xiang is a Taiwanese caviar producer that is tucked in the mountainous Guguan valley near the city of Taichung. Translating to "home of the fish", Yu Zhi Xiang began as one of the first trout farms in Taiwan before switching to ayu and, in 1998, sturgeon, when a friend of the owner helped to import the prized fish from Europe. Given the long maturation period of sturgeon, Yu Zhi Xiang's first caviar harvest occurred in 2007.

The company espouses a nose-to-tail ethos where the roe is harvested within a three-day window—a precise method only made possible by implanting all of the sturgeon with microchips tracking their every move. After the harvest, the sturgeon are turned into a range of dishes served at the on-site restaurant as sashimi, congee and soup, or smoked and steamed in a range of regional specialties—paired, of course, with fresh caviar.

See also: Syed Asim Hussain On What's Next For Black Sheep Restaurants And Building A Restaurant Empire

Thailand

Beginning first as an importer of caviar from China and Russia, Caviar House became the first Thai producer of caviar in 2016 when it opened its own farm in Thailand's Hua Hin province. Taking more than a year to construct, the 1,500-square-metre facility is heavily reliant on specialised equipment imported from all over Europe to maintain the highly specific conditions—from water temperature, to pH and oxygen levels—needed to rear the arctic sturgeon, a task made even harder with Thailand's tropical climate. 

Today, Caviar House counts among its offerings the smooth and delicate Classic Sturgeon Caviar from Siberian sturgeon fish; the intense and flavourful Premium Sturgeon Caviar from Russia; the coveted Beluga Caviar; and the firm yet buttery Royal Oscietra Caviar from beluga-sturgeon hybrid fish.

New Disruptors

Caviar Colony

Founded in Singapore two years ago by restaurateur Benjamin Goh and partner Celine Tan, Caviar Colony is another Asian brand looking to make premium caviar accessible to all. They offer five types of caviar sustainably sourced from an 800-hectare farm in Yunnan, China, where the sturgeon are raised without antibiotics in pristine spring waters, fed fish feed that includes Chinese medicinal herbs and salmon oil, and harvested after 10 years to ensure the highest quality. The eggs are then aged for two months and lightly salted (3.2 to 3.5 per cent as compared to the industry standards of 5 to 8 per cent) to allow the natural flavours to come to the fore.

Characterised by its dark green pearls, light and buttery flavours, and long, briny finish, the eggs of the Amur sturgeon are the brand's best-selling variety; but for something more exclusive, it’s best to go for the Russian hybrid, bred using Ossetra and Siberian sturgeon. The taste is quite distinctive and somewhat sweet—like Kyoho grapes but with a nutty and creamy finish. 

Nomad Caviar

One man looking to return at least a semblance of caviar's former status as a food for the everyman is founder of Nomad Caviar, Jason Cohen. Better known as the director of the Ce La Vi Group, the Hong Kong native found himself in the caviar business after hosting several dinners for homebound friends in the midst of the pandemic. "We were buying quite a lot from different places, and it got quite expensive. I knew that 75 percent of the world's caviar was now coming out of China and it's all farmed, so we bought from a whole load of farms in China, and then we just started doing blind tasting dinners," he tells Tatler Dining.

With its direct-to-consumer business, Nomad avoids the markups imposed by restaurants on their caviar offerings, which is why it's able to offer 500g tin of Kaluga hybrid caviar for HK$4,688—a fraction of the Petrossian equivalent, also farmed in China and sold at US$4,400 (approximately HK$34,140). Half a kilogram is also the minimum quantity that Nomad sells its two types of caviar (Kaluga hybrid and Ossetra); as a result, Cohen has no qualms about heaping the roe onto all manner of food, from scrambled eggs to potato latkes. 

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