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food / travel

How Caviar Is Conquering China With Both Supply & Demand

The new Super rich of China are indulging in another world classic: Caviar from wild sturgeon in the Caspian sea comes in at hundreds of dollars a spoonful. But China has also quietly become a new source of farmed caviar, which experts say can compete wit

A global delicacy (Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak)
A global delicacy (Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak)
Shi Jianzi

BEIJING - The "Lipstick effect" is an economic theory that says women are more likely to buy expensive lipstick when facing an economic crisis. Lipstick is after all a relatively cheap luxury good. Then there's a very different barometer of the state of the economy: consumption of the "3C's: champagne, cigars, and caviar.

After an increasingly wealthy China found its taste for champagne and cigars, it's now apparently time to scoop up the caviar.

The Chinese in the know (and dough) will explain to you that only sturgeon roe is eligible to be called caviar, traditionally coming from the wild sturgeon species of the Caspian Sea, where there exists a special variety of algae that the fish feed on.

However, because of the growing global demand of caviar, as well as overfishing and pollution, the production of wild sturgeon caviar is dwindling. Among all the sturgeon, the Beluga that produces the most expensive caviar risks becoming as scarce as endangered species like the rhinoceros and panda.

This raises the issue of the eater's ethic. Like consuming shark fins, whale meat or bear bile, the human appetite is touching Nature's bottom line.

Moral choices are largely a personal matter. There are still those who pursue the wild sturgeon roe for their top taste – others are after the status. The smuggling market for wild caviar is booming because of the international ban on wild sturgeon fishing: prices can reach $10,000 a pound, which means several hundred dollars a spoonful.

Yangtze caviar?

How the chefs of China's high-end restaurants get their caviar depends on their contacts. Some are obliged to turn to the roe coming from aquaculture, which has been in existence for over 20 years, mainly in Russia, North America and Europe.

Indeed, like numerous other industries, the artificial raising of sturgeon has also relocated to China in the past few years. Caviar farms are found throughout certain valleys of the Yangtze River basin, as well as on the Heilongjiang River in China.

The Kaluga Queen is one of the most successful examples of a Chinese product that was first aimed for export, but now actually has conquered an even bigger market inside of China. The Kaluga roe comes from the Thousand Island Lake of Zhejiang Province. It was originally produced for Petrossian, France's most high-end caviar brand, to supply top restaurants in Europe.

Nevertheless, the Far East origin of Kaluga Queen is a topic the company tries to avoid. On the company's site, one does not find any information about where this product comes from. It's quite understandable. Just like the luxury brands Burberry and Louis Vuitton, unless caught in flagrante delicto, they all try to deny that their goods are mostly manufactured these days in China to take advantage of the cheap labor.

For those Chinese consumers not familiar with the difference between the wild and the farmed caviar, Kaluga Queen does not wish to scare anyone off by reading the product's origin.

According to Ni Hao, the marketing manager for Kaluga Queen, 90% of China's Western restaurants offer the roe of this native brand. "Just like the strict appellation for French wine, the fact that Kaluga Queen can meet the French clients' standard implies a demanding system from the raising through distribution".

Interestingly, the foreign chefs seem to put much more confidence in the Chinese product. It's said that in the "Atelier of Joel Robuchon", the three-star French chef's Hong Kong restaurant, he also uses China caviar for his cuisine.

Sebastian Lepinoy, the French chef of Cépage, another Hong Kong one-star restaurant, even reckons that "The Chinese caviars are better than those of the Caspian Sea which is seriously polluted. Also, because the caviar from the Thousand Island Lake is farmed every two months, it's particularly fresh."

At popular Shanghai restaurant Madison, the chef works directly with the Chinese caviar brand to prepare a "Caviar Wednesday" menu. The caviar starts at 10 euros every 10 grams. It's a marketing skill to encourage the young diners' interest in this pricy ingredient.

The Chinese caviar companies are happy no matter how the customers eat the caviar. "Of course we advocate the direct taste. But caviar has a particularly strong taste, so we don't mind that people eat it with other food to get used to it first," says Ni Hao. "Just like when wine first came to China, people accepted it gradually only by drinking it along with Sprite."

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photo - Amadeusz Leonardo Juskowiak

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