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Wild Iranian Ossetra Caviar, ready to serve with mother-of-pearl spoons and Champagne.
Farmed French Siberian sturgeon Caviar.

Caviar, sometimes black caviar, is a luxury delicacy, consisting of processed, salted, non-fertilized sturgeon roe.[1] The roe can be "fresh" (non-pasteurized) or pasteurized, the latter having much less gastronomic and economic value.[2]

Traditionally the designation caviar (also known as perch-bait) is only used for sturgeon roe, namely from the wild sturgeon species from the Caspian Sea, in most cases from Russia or Iran (Beluga, Ossetra and Sevruga caviars). These caviar varieties, according to their quality (flavour, size, consistency and colour) can reach (February 2009) prices between € 6,000 and € 12,000 per kilo, and are associated with gourmet and Haute cuisine environments.

Presently, depending on specific national laws, the name caviar may be used by a variety of far less expensive products, substitutes and imitations of caviar, such as salmon roe (sometimes called red caviar), trout roe, lumpfish roe, etc.

However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, roe from any species not Acipenseriformes (including Acipenseridae, or sturgeon strictu sensu, and Polyodontidae, or paddlefish) are not caviar, but "substitutes of caviar".[3]

This position is also adopted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora[4], the World Wide Fund for Nature,[5], the United States Customs Service[6], and the Republic of France.[7]

Caviar is commercially marketed worldwide as a delicacy and is eaten as a garnish or a spread; for example, with hors d'œuvres.



The word caviar entered English via Italian "caviale",[8] though it is ultimately derived from Persian خاویار, pronounced [xɒvjɒr], from khaya "egg" (from Middle Persian khayak "egg," from Old Iranian *qvyaka-, diminutive of *avya-, from PIE *owyo-/*oyyo- "egg") + dar "bearing." [8]

Some people also think it derives from the Persian word خاگ‌آور (Xâg-âvar), meaning "the roe-generator"; others say chav-jar, which means "cake of power", a reference to the ancient Persian practice of eating caviar in stick form as a kind of elixir.[9]

In Persian, the word refers to both the sturgeon and its roe; in Russian, the word икра (ikra), "roe", is used. The Russian word malosol ("little salt") sometimes appears on caviar tins to show that the caviar is minimally salted; typically, caviar contains 4% to 8% salt, with the better-brand varieties generally being less salted.


Russian and Iranian Caviar tins: Beluga to the left, Ossetra in the middle, Sevruga to the right.
Advertising poster for Iranian caviar in Paris, France

This elegant and expensive appetizer is simply sieved and lightly salted fish roe (eggs). Sturgeon roe is premium and considered the "true" caviar. The four main types of caviar are beluga, sterlet, osetra, and sevruga. The rarest and costliest is from the beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Russia and other ex-Soviet republics. Wild caviar production has now survived only in Iran as Russia maintains a self-imposed ban on caviar trade from wild sturgeon [10]. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in color from pale silver-gray to black. It is followed by the small golden sterlet caviar which is rare and was once reserved for Russian czars, Iranian shahs and Austrian emperors. Next in quality is the medium-sized, gray to brownish oestra, and the last in the quality ranking is smaller, gray sevruga caviar.

The word malossol on the label doesn't describe the type of caviar but rather the fact that the roe is preserved with a minimum amount of salt; malossol is Russian for "little salt." Caviar is extremely perishable and must be refrigerated immediately until it's consumed. Pasteurized caviar is roe that has been partially cooked, thereby giving the eggs a slightly different texture. It is less perishable and may not require refrigeration before opening. Pressed caviar is composed of damaged or fragile eggs and can be a combination of several different roes. It's specially treated, salted, and pressed. Be sure to read the label for information on how to handle the caviar you purchase. Although a spoonful of caviar supplies the adult daily requirement of vitamin B-12, it's also high in cholesterol and salt. The caviar of the sturgeon is the most expensive. Currently, the dwindling fishing yields as a result of overfishing and pollution have resulted in the creation of less costly, though popular, caviar-quality roe alternatives from the whitefish and the North Atlantic salmon. The harvest and sale of black caviar have been banned in Russia since August 1, 2007. The ban extends for 10 years, but scientific research and the artificial breeding of black caviar fish are exempted.

Other popular and much less expensive types of roe, sometimes presented as caviar, include lumpfish caviar (tiny, hard, black eggs, whitefish caviar (also called American Golden) with its small yellow-gold eggs and salmon or red caviar (medium-size, pale orange to deep red eggs).



In the early 1900s, Canada and the United States were the major caviar suppliers to Europe; they harvested roe from the lake sturgeon in the North American midwest, and from the Shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon spawning in the rivers of the Eastern coast of the United States. Today, however, the Shortnose sturgeon is rated Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of endangered species and rated Endangered per the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In Spain a fish farm called Caviar de Riofrio has begun to produce organic caviar. The company raises sturgeon in such a way that it has earned an organic certification.[11]

Current aquaculture of sturgeon is an economically viable means of sustainable, commercial caviar production, especially in Spain, France, Uruguay, and California.[12] Hackleback caviar is a popular, inexpensive product of this industry. Paddlefish, a sturgeon cousin, is also farmed in increasing numbers.

Recently, the amount of allowed wild fish harvesting has been decreased, consequently increasing caviar prices. In September 2005, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service banned the import of Caspian Sea Beluga caviar, to protect the endangered Beluga sturgeon; a month later, the ban included Beluga caviar from the entire Black Sea basin. In January 2006, CITES, the convention for trade in endangered species, announced they were "unable to approve the [caviar] export quotas" for 2006 from wild fish stocks.[13] In January 2007, this ban was partly lifted, allowing the sale of 96 tons of caviar, 15% below the official 2005 level.[14]


Salmon roe with bread.

Commercial caviar production normally involves stunning the fish (usually by clubbing its head) and extracting the ovaries.

Nowadays most commercial fish farmers extract the caviar from the sturgeon surgically (compare caesarean section) and then stitch up the wound to keep the sturgeon alive, allowing the females to continue producing more roe during their lives.

Nevertheless, other farmers are going even further, using a process called "stripping", which extracts the caviar out of the fish without surgical intervention. [15] This is the most humane approach towards fish that is presently available, but not all farmers can do it due to the lack of knowledge in this field [16]

Iran is the world's largest producer and exporter of caviar (annual exports of more than 300 tonnes), followed by Russia.[17][18]

Alternatives and imitation

Seven different kinds of caviar substitutes
Typical Swedish sandwich with hard-boiled eggs and cod roe from a tube

In Scandinavia, a significantly cheaper version of caviar, made from mashed and smoked cod roe (smörgåskaviar or sandwichkaviar), is sold in tubes as a sandwich filling. When sold outside Scandinavia, the product is referred to as creamed smoked roe or in French as Caviar de Lysekil, named after the Swedish coastal town of Lysekil from which this type of caviar may have originated.

An obvious sturgeon caviar imitation is Danish or German black coloured lumpsucker caviar, which is sold throughout Europe in small glass jars. It can also be found red coloured. A more expensive sturgeon caviar alternative, sold in Sweden and Finland, is the caviar from the vendace. In Finland caviars from the burbot and the common whitefish are also sold.

In some eastern European countries, such as Ukraine and Russia, "Ikra" also refers to an eggplant spread which is often referred to as "poor man's caviar."[citation needed]

Caviar farms have also been established in the mountains of Spain.[citation needed]

In the vegetarian foodstuffs market, algae-based imitation caviar is produced and sold as a caviar alternative.


Iranian ossetra caviar with refreshed langoustines in a nage reduction, accompanied by its perfumed broth, by Alain Ducasse in his restaurant at the Plaza Athénée.
Ikura (salmon roe) on a sushi roll

Given its high price in the West, caviar is associated with luxury and wealth. In Russia and other Eastern European cultures, though still expensive, caviar is commonly served at holiday feasts, weddings, and other festive occasions.

Sturgeon-derived caviar is not eaten by Kosher observant Jews because sturgeon lack the scales mandated by the kosher diet. Sturgeon possess ganoid scales instead of the permitted ctenoid and cycloid scales. Although there is a discussion of its status within Halacha, since the scales will come off if soaked in lye; however, this does not apply to every roe-yielding fish species.

In Islam generally all sea or river animals such as fish are lawful and halal which applies to the sturgeon as well as its caviar (depending on which school of practice), though in Twelver Shi'a Islam the creature has to have scales.

In East Asia, "caviar" made from caplin roe may be found on sushi and is often very affordable. Salmon roe is called "ikura" in Japanese, a derivative of the Russian, "ikra" (caviar).

Caviar is also seen as a common offering to the feline species in the ancient Egyptian Bast cult.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Houshang Alʿam, "Caviar", in Encyclopædia Iranica online.
  2. ^ According to Jean-Pierre Esmilaire, Directeur Général of Caviar House & Prunier: "two-thirds of caviar's taste is lost through pasteurisation." (in "Three-star caviar", Caterersearch - The complete information source for hospitality, 01 February 2001). Also Judith C. Sutton states that "pasteurized caviar doesn't taste as good or have the consistency of fresh caviar, and cviar lovers avoid it." ( in Judith C. Sutton, Champagne & Caviar & Other Delicacies, New York, Balck Dog & Leventhal, 1998, p. 53.)
  3. ^ "Roe coming from a fish other than Acipenseriformes is not caviar, and is often classified as «caviar substitute»." in Catarci, Camillo (2004), "Sturgeons (Acipenseriformes)", in World markets and industry of selected commercially-exploited aquatic species with an international conservation profile, FAO Fisheries Circulars - C990, FAO Corporate Document Repository, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.
  4. ^ "Caviar: processed roe of Acipenseriformes species." in CITES (2002), "Annex 1 - CITES guidelines for a universal labelling system for the trade in and identification of caviar", in Resolution Conf. 12.7 - Conservation of and trade in sturgeons and paddlefish, Twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Santiago (Chile), 3-15 November 2002.
  5. ^ "Caviar is made from the unfertilized eggs of female sturgeon and paddlefish, among the oldest and largest species of fish living on earth." in World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Trade - Caviar Trade FAQs.
  6. ^ "The United States of America Custom Service (US Customs & Border Protection, 2004) defines caviar as: Caviar is the eggs or roe of sturgeon preserved with salt. It is prepared by removing the egg masses from freshly caught fish and passing them carefully through a fine-mesh screen to separate the eggs and remove extraneous bits of tissue and fat. At the same time, 4–6 percent salt is added to preserve the eggs and bring out the flavour. Most caviar is produced in Russia and Iran from fish taken from the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov." in Johannesson, J. (2006), "1. Fish roe products and relevant resources for the industry: Definitions of caviar", Lumpfish caviar – from vessel to consumer, FAO Fisheries Technical Paper No. 485, Rome, FAO, p.1.
  7. ^ Arrêté du 23 février 2007 (NOR: DEVN0750874A; Version consolidée au 06 mai 2007), Article 1: "a) Caviar : oeufs non fécondés, traités, des espèces d'acipensériformes dont la liste figure en annexe du présent arrêté;".
  8. ^ a b Online Etymology Dictionary
  9. ^ LEDA at Harvard Law School - A Brief History of Caviar
  10. ^ [1] – Russia has maintained a ban on the international export of sturgeon roe
  11. ^ - More than one fish egg in the sea
  12. ^ California Farm Bureau Federation - Farmers tame prehistoric fish to make food fit for a king
  13. ^ - International caviar trade banned
  14. ^ - UN lifts embargo on caviar trade
  15. ^ [2] – The link to the Latvian farm which pioneered commercial “stripping” in 2007
  16. ^ [3] – The article in the Independent newspaper 24 September 2009
  17. ^
  18. ^

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