Caviar has always been a khan’s treat in Kazakhstan. The eggs of the sturgeon, one of the oldest species on earth, are as prized today as ever, and an ounce of the best beluga caviar will cost you at least $150 and often more. And with Kazakhstan’s and the region’s economic fortunes rising and a new entrepreneurial class seeking to enjoy this age-old luxury, Kazakhstan is taking steps to make sure the delicacy is not pushed to extinction.
Roe and Romance
Caviar is said to stimulate desire, a legendary property borne out by the food’s abundance of minerals and micro-elements, including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron, which help maintain metabolism and promote quick recoveries—possibly making its consumers more energetic in bed. Caviar even gets into our heads: phosphorus and iodine can raise levels of serotonin, the pleasure hormone, and stimulate the production of testosterone.
All types of caviar are rich in essential amino acids; vitamins A, B, C and D; minerals; folic acid and lecithin. Folic acid is good for the skin and prevents anemia; lecithin helps with maintaining cholesterol levels and is the main nutrient of nerve cells.
A Treat’s True Cost
In a world of the new rich and their increasing demand for luxury, however, sturgeon populations and their ecosystems are struggling. The most expensive caviar in the world comes from the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. These five countries control the sea’s and the sturgeon’s destinies.
For decades, Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan were the world’s three major caviar manufacturers and set the pace of production. Over the last two decades, caviar producers have had to face the consequences of overfishing and pollution in the Caspian Sea: steeply declining sturgeon populations. Caspian Sea sturgeon are critically endangered. (Imports of caviar from the Caspian Sea to the U.S. have been banned since the species was put on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2005).
At a summit of Caspian states in 2011, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed banning sturgeon fishing in the Caspian Sea for five years, rather than continuing to fish and reaping huge profits until stocks disappeared completely. The initiative was supported by all five states with the condition that should one country not honor the treaty, the others would have the option to revoke it. A few months later, Turkmenistan refused to sign on. The treaty is now in limbo, with Russia and Kazakhstan maintaining the ban and Iran continuing to fish.
The prices caviar still commands and the fact that ignorant or unscrupulous buyers are still willing to pay them make poaching a lucrative business—and a big problem for Caspian sturgeon and the Caspian states. With prices of the best and rarest caviar reaching tens of thousands of dollars per pound, illegal sturgeon fishing is extremely tempting and anti-poaching measures have yet to catch up with the amount of criminal activity.
Preserving the Sturgeon
The Hunting and Fishing Department of Seifullin Kazakh Agro-Technical University is working on the issue of preserving sturgeon, Associate Professor Kuanysh Syzdykov told EdgeKz.
“The moratorium on sturgeon fishing is one of the biggest steps in addressing the conservation of valuable species. … However, the illegal fishing of ichthyo [fish and fish-like] fauna continues. Measures to combat poaching are insufficiently worked out. Questions need to be addressed in restoring the migratory routes of sturgeon to spawning grounds, et cetera,” Syzdykov said. “Artificial ponds with recirculating water currents would greatly help in growing sturgeon in numbers. It is necessary to increase the number of fish farms that specialize in cultivating various species of sturgeon.”
Syzdykov also said that Kazakhstan had extensive experience in artificially breeding fish and that Kazakhstani scientists were working closely with their counterparts in Russia, Ukraine, China and other countries to exchange technologies and experience.
Recently, China has stepped in to fill the gap in the caviar market. Farmed Chinese caviar now makes up nearly 20 percent of global output, though there is not yet consensus about its quality. Italy, which has one of the world’s largest sturgeon farms, has also been investing in sturgeon farming for decades, recently directing millions of dollars into developing and expanding its programs. Beluga caviar has been popular in Italy for centuries and beluga sturgeon were at one time frequently caught in the Po River.
Kazakhstan may be willing to suspend farming, but it’s not going to give up its share of the market in one of the most sought-after luxury goods completely. The country has created a program of state support for the development of fish farms, especially sturgeon farms, through 2015. The major point is to preserve the gene pool of Kazakhstan’s sturgeon, says Syzdykov.
“We believe that the implementation of this program will allow Kazakhstan to take a decent niche in the market,” he said. “And our scientific research center is working to study issues of and prospects for commercial aquaculture. We have two mini-ponds with recirculating water flows, a total of four cubic meters, in which we cultivate fingerlings [very young sturgeon]. We also have a hatchery for breeding carp fish and pools for rearing carp larva. Our main job is a part of a program to preserve sturgeon in Kazakhstan.”
As an alternative to natural caviar, one of Kazakhstan’s most prominent entrepreneurs, Alexander Rozenkron, decided to produce artificial black caviar. He opened a mini-factory that produces and packages artificial black caviar in Taldykorgan, in south-eastern Kazakhstan, in 2009. In an interview with local media, he said, “Artificial caviar has not been produced in Kazakhstan in recent years, despite the apparent profitability of this business. Only two factories exist in the eastern part of the country, and the 10-year moratorium on sturgeon fishing caused a significant increase in the share of imported roe from abroad. Now along with natural caviar, you can find artificial caviar on the shelves in our supermarkets.”
The price for artificial caviar is 450-500 tenge ($3-4) per kilogram. The faux roe can be found in almost any supermarket—and on dinner tables. If you’re not sure whether what you’re eating is real or not, throw a few grains in a pot of boiling water. The fakes will vaporize after a time.
The Real Thing
Natural caviar prices in Kazakhstan range from $1,000-$1,500 per kilogram, making it a rare sight at all but formal occasions. One of the biggest suppliers of natural, non-pasteurized caviar in Kazakhstan is Inkar Caviar (www.inkarcaviar.satu.kz, +7 727 390-1254 or +7 701 784-7072). The company’s main office is in Almaty and they plan to open a store in Astana soon. Their product comes from sturgeon grown in fish farms using German technology, a company representative told EdgeKz.
Know What Goes on Your Cracker
Sometimes a fish egg is not just a fish egg. Novice caviar-seekers are often surprised at how many variables affect the rich, salty treat. The first question is color: red or black? The different colors indicate that the roe is from different types of fish, Aigul Nauryzbekova, a 22-year-old caviar vendor at Astana’s Alem Supermarket told EdgeKz. “Though of course the ingredients are essentially the same, caviars still differ and careful consideration is needed to choose the best. The most popular and expensive caviar is beluga caviar. Second in popularity is other sturgeon caviar.”
After color, the next way of distinguishing caviar is by the size of the eggs, or grains. “With black caviar, the bigger the better; however, when it comes to choosing red caviar, it’s the opposite—the smaller the better,” Nauryzbekova said.
In addition to color and size, caviar’s age and packaging are also important. “There is a packaging season for caviar, usually the middle or end of summer—July or August—so when you buy it, you have to pay attention to when it was packaged. Good quality caviar should always be in a glass jar. There should be no liquid inside the jar and the grains should all be the same size,” said Nauryzbekova.
Three types of caviar were traditionally eaten in Kazakhstan: the small, round grains of the keta fish or dog salmon, which are red with orange hues, lighter pink salmon caviar and large, dark red salmon caviar.