04 Aug2008

Iranian Beluga Caviar

by Marketman

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If posts on ridiculously overpriced ingredients or food items bother you, DO NOT READ the rest of this entry. Beluga caviar is one of those delicacies whose price seems to attract more attention (both awe and disgust) than its taste or inherent ability to bring joy and happiness to a diner… Historically, it was an ingredient only Shahs, Kings, Sultans and their favored relatives consumed in their opulent palaces, with opulent single-use caviar utensils. Along with saffron, truffles and bird’s nests, caviar is priced by the gram – and the finest Iranian Beluga caviar might fetch a shocking US$6-8,000 a kilo at the fancier caviarterias in Paris or New York; though several websites suggest that the cost at the source in Kazahkstan, can be as “little” as US$250 a kilo. The eggs of humongous Beluga sturgeon, which are caught primarily in the Caspian sea (not really a sea, rather the world’s largest lake), most Beluga caviar comes from ports in Kazahkstan, and parts of Iran. It was so sought after during the past two decades, that sturgeon fish stocks suffered a precipitous decline, and for a year or so in 2005-2006, the U.S., which used to consume a majority of the annual production of Beluga caviar, banned the importation of beluga caviar. Importation was resumed into the U.S. in January 2007, and while sturgeon fish stocks are probably still on the verge of being, if not still endangered, beluga caviar is technically legally sold in and enjoyed in limited quantities today…

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I have only enjoyed Beluga caviar two or three times before, and never in big teaspoons full au naturel or in its natural state, unadorned by fillers or any other extenders. So when I recently visited the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, I was hoping that Turkey’s proximity to Iran would mean I would have a chance to indulge, as this was the closest I was ever going to get to the source… There were indeed several stalls at the Spice Bazaar selling Iranian caviar, but the whole set-up was fraught with bad vibes around being duped, overcharged, outright cheated, or subjected to hard sell tactics. I decided to make the first visit to the bazaar a “reconnaissance” trip… and I had done just a bit of research prior to the trip to get a feel for the basic prices of Beluga caviar. As a further measure to prevent some Marketman impulse buying, I left my wallet at the hotel and only put a few bills in my front pants pocket. I asked about the prices in a couple of stalls at the bazaar, and realized one would really have to bargain to get the best deal. Now if only I could convince the sellers that I knew what I was doing…

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At one of the frequently recommended stalls (#18) for purchasing Turkish delight, I spied several tins of caviar in their refrigerator and casually asked how much the Beluga caviar was per 100 grams. The first price quoted was somewhere above $350 ($3,500 a kilo) and I feigned shock, and selected a few more sweets instead. But the salesman, Ibrahim, spotted a Marketman in a flash, and quickly pulled out two tins, hiding the covers, and handed me a small plastic spoon so that I could taste the contents of each tin. One tin had large roe, lighter in color and with a lower salt content, definitely “malossol”. It was stunningly good. A second tin had nearly as good caviar but slightly saltier and not as creamy. I had no idea what these were, but stated with confidence that the first tin was brilliant, and he would spoil all of the rest of the caviars by letting me taste that first… he grinned and said, “that is our finest Iranian Beluga caviar”, the second tin was Sevruga. I had obviously passed the first challenge. Then I went on to taste the Ossetra, some Royal, some pasteurized jet ink black fish roe, and a total of 6 different caviars. I figured I had already tasted some 10 grams of the delicacy, and could walk away feeling pretty good, if not a little djahe or embarrased about not buying anything… But that first taste was enough to get me hooked. I bargained a bit, discussed packaging for transport for a larger volume, and finally agreed to purchase a small tin with 50 grams of the Beluga caviar to “taste back at the hotel,” and if satisfied, I would return to purchase more for the trip home. I ended up paying some US$90 for the 50 grams, or roughly US$1,800 per kilo equivalent, knowing this was the my key food “goody” for the trip. I rushed home clutching my tiny plastic bag, hoping I hadn’t been royally screwed. Mrs. MM was to be the additional taster, as she is a huge caviar fan, I figured she would temper any enthusiasm I had if it was not warranted. I only had enough money in my pocket to take the tram back to the hotel!

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Oh, I forgot to mention that I insisted on taking my 50 grams from the tin of Beluga caviar that I had actually tasted. I didn’t want any risk of buying a sealed tin, only to find out later that it wasn’t of the same quality. Ibrahim, the caviar dude, gracefully scooped out some 55-60 grams (an extra 20%, yahoo!) of the stuff and packaged it in a fresh tin for me. The golden tin, just 3 inches across and perhaps 3/4ths of an inch high, was then surrounded by a thick taut rubber band, then into some foil for insulation and into a vacuum packed plastic bag. He would have given me some ice or an ice pack as well but I told him I would be eating it within the hour, so it wasn’t necessary… You must keep fresh caviar chilled, and NEVER freeze it.

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Back in the hotel room, still giddy from the purchase, almost like a kid with something too good to tell anyone about, I started to worry about how to best enjoy the caviar. In Manila, we have several mother of pearl spoons and little plates that are ideal for serving and eating caviar with, but we NEVER ever had fresh Beluga caviar there. So I was kicking myself, wondering why I didn’t have the foresight to stick a little mother of pearl spoon into my hand-carry, just in case… Mother of Pearl or bone are considered ideal materials as they reportedly do not affect the flavor of the fish eggs at all, where silver or other metals might. Thankfully, the next best utensil is probably a plastic spoon, and we happened to have a few of those! So yes, it seems bizarre that one might enjoy one of the most expensive foods on the planet with one of the cheapest possible utensils thereon…

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The eggs were enormous, glistening and a lighter shade of grey and slightly brownish. Apparently, the older the fish from which it came from, the lighter the Beluga caviar. Unlike the cheaper caviars, good beluga is not likely to be jet black. The best way to savor it is by itself, just a teaspoon full at a time, onto your tongue. Then lift your tongue to the roof of your mouth and burst a few of the eggs. Otherwise, chew on the eggs to release the uniquely briny, sea like flavors that are really quite amazing. Some folks might find it positively disgusting, refer to it as an acquired taste perhaps, but I LIKE IT. :) Forget about all the fancy accoutrements served with lesser quality caviars, the chopped eggs, the lemon, creme fraiche or sour cream, they are there to MASK the taste of the caviar, rather than enhance it. I read somewhere that for Beluga, one might try it on a piece of bread, ideally lightly toasted, and smeared with a touch of sweet butter. The sweetness of the butter works well with the creaminess and lightly salty caviar…

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So out the door Mrs. MM went, in search of some bread and sweet butter. Back in 10 minutes, we enjoyed the rest of our tin of Beluga caviar with bread and a little butter and it was fantastic. The only thing missing was some champagne or ice cold vodka. Eating out on the tiny balcony of our hotel room, facing the gardens of Topkapi palace, it seemed a fitting tribute to the opulence of a bygone era. This is not something we are going to do very often, but it is memorable when it happens. As for The Kid, she was a bit worried that she wouldn’t like the caviar, but after a tentative taste, she went on to have SEVERAL servings of the stuff… egads, starting right at the pinnacle of caviars, will she ever settle for less?

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So I am sure the ultimate question many of you are asking yourselves is, “was it really worth it?” At US$90 for some twenty small servings, enjoyed by three, I thought it was a very reasonable splurge. Others might opt to buy several doodads instead, or a mediocre meal at a mediocre restaurant, and to each their own, but Marketman & Family enjoyed this little tin of fresh Iranian Beluga Caviar… And had we indulged in this manner at a Parisian or New York based specialty restaurant, assuming you could even get the Beluga caviar, this would have cost upwards of US$500+!

 

COMMENTS:

  1. Vanessa says:

    Marketman, I’m glad you found what you were looking for! :-) I’ve only had really exceptional caviar once on a trip, and the taste is unforgettable!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 6:27 am

     
  2. Artisan Chocolatier says:

    MM…You wet my appetite!!!!!! I wanted to eat your last picture of bread, butter, & caviar in hand!!!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 6:36 am

     
  3. fried-neurons says:

    Before I had my first taste of caviar, I thought, “Euw! Fish eggs?!” But then I promptly became a believer after the first taste. Have only had beluga once, at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Would love to have some again sometime…

    Aug 4, 2008 | 6:49 am

     
  4. Thel says:

    I had my first Beluga caviar at Zaybar Deli in New York and that was in 1987. I loved it. Then I had my second and succeeding Beluga in Las Vegas, but I don’t buy no more than $100 worth. One time I mixed the Beluga with japanese rice, chopped smoked turkey, and white truffle oil. Then I wrapped those with grilled seaweeds. First I brushed the seaweeds with sesame sead oil and some sea salt then grilled in a turbo. That was how I extended my Beluga.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 7:59 am

     
  5. Apicio says:

    If I may be excused for redundancy, the last picture is the ultimate and you’re final statement is so true. The now defunct Caviarteria was my sweetest revenge, my best way ever of getting back at my bosses.

    betty q. my hotmail id is mansor47

    Aug 4, 2008 | 8:11 am

     
  6. mojito_drinker says:

    hi MM i’m green with envy!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 9:36 am

     
  7. Glecy says:

    I first time I tried caviar was in St. Petersburg,Russia but I was not impressed. Probably it was not the best. I should try it again, probably this time to look for color, quality and ask some questions. Thanks for the info.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 10:36 am

     
  8. lyna says:

    Sorry, MM, no caviar for me. But I do appreciate the fact that you indulged with your family and for that, it was well worth it!!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 10:43 am

     
  9. michelle says:

    Hi MM, Just wondering, what kind of camera do you use? You have great pics…The caviar post reminds me of a dinner at a russian restaurant in Helsinki. The food was excellent but it took ages.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 11:04 am

     
  10. Fabian says:

    my mouth is watering.

    $90 for 20 servings of excellent caviar, shared with your family. Seems like a good price to me.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 11:08 am

     
  11. skyemermaid says:

    the last picture is beautiful.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 11:12 am

     
  12. MarketFan says:

    so, did you go back to purchase more to bring home? you should have gotten insurance for it as well:-)..nice to hear you enjoyed the caviar..$90 can be earned or saved again, compared to having passed up the opportunity and saying “sayang” later on..life and food are meant to be savored with gusto..once again, reason for the latest poll revealed..

    Aug 4, 2008 | 12:35 pm

     
  13. fried-neurons says:

    I just checked the website of Caviar Russe in NYC. Caspian Sea beluga is currently unavailable for purchase, but they charge $11,925 per kilo of Black Sea beluga!!!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 1:15 pm

     
  14. teresa says:

    i am not really a caviar fan. when i was a licensed tour guide, a russian guest gifted me with two tiny tins of caviar. my friends enjoyed it but not me.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 2:07 pm

     
  15. chrisb says:

    Heston Blumenthal serves caviar on a white chocolate disc. Apparently, white chocolate and caviar share a lot of the chemical elements that give their flavour. Haven’t tried it though… If you brought home caviar and by a big miracle you still have some left over, you should try it. =)

    Aug 4, 2008 | 2:39 pm

     
  16. Katrina says:

    Just want to chime in about that last picture inducing wild cravings — and the worst kind of craving, at that, because it’s (in the immediate future, anyway) unattainable! ;-)

    Aug 4, 2008 | 2:56 pm

     
  17. Susan says:

    MM, I think you just know how to make the best of everything where ever you are. I have a question and need help from you or possibly your many fans living in Manila. I have a friend who adores filipino food and is on his way to the Philippines. I would like to offer some advice to him on “street food” which I know he would just want to eat everything in sight without much thought of the “pains” he could later experience if he’s not careful. What street foods should he definitely stay away from and which ones are basically safe.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 3:41 pm

     
  18. sister says:

    Street food safety: Anything that has not been touched by human hands AFTER cooking is probaby safe: suman, bibingka, fried banana Q, unshelled peanuts, etc. Unpeeled fruit, canned or bottled drinks are okay as well, avoid meat or seafood, or noodle dishes offered on possibly unsanitary dishes or flatware.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 4:25 pm

     
  19. RGM says:

    Based on the color alone, one could tell it’s really good Beluga Caviar (it should be dark gold/champagne in color). For that price, absolutely worth it!

    I’m glad you had a great time and enjoyed a wonderful vacation. :)

    Aug 4, 2008 | 4:35 pm

     
  20. Emily says:

    Oh my, that looks good! A few months ago, I was traipsing down a street on the way to a meeting and chanced upon the Petrossian boutique in Paris, which turned out to be on the same street. My pocket was woefully not full enough to buy even just a smidgen of caviar but I would have loved a first taste!
    And I agree – I think that is a better buy than, say, the latest cell phone or electronic gadget out there.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 6:24 pm

     
  21. Joey says:

    Wow sarap! Na-inggit naman ako sa post mo! I have never tried Beluga caviar before.. the ones I have tried are sevruga and ossetra and I doubt if they were malossol :-) On my most recent trip to SFO, my friend and I splurged and had Sunday brunch at Ritz-Carlton. They had caviar and yes… ibabuso ko! He he! And at $78/pax (excluding champagne), dapat lang! :-) Unlike you though I like it with the traditional add-ons… and on blinis please!

    Aug 4, 2008 | 6:51 pm

     
  22. The Steak Lady says:

    Great picture MM! :)

    Aug 4, 2008 | 7:03 pm

     
  23. Ejit says:

    I haven’t tasted a caviar altough I have seen this served in hotels in Manila. I actually don’t know how to eat them (poor me!) With this post, I think I should include caviar on my list of things to try before I die. Question.. is there any other way to enjoy caviar aside from eating it with bread and butter? Is it better by eating it just plain caviar with a bottle of champagne or vodka as you would like to have it?

    Aug 4, 2008 | 8:18 pm

     
  24. Roberto Vicencio says:

    Had a comanding officer who used to work with NATO in Brussels. He told me that his job is to wine and dine Russian Generals. He was able to access Beluga Caviar from Russia and he told me that it was sinfully cheap there in the Motherland.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 8:19 pm

     
  25. maddie says:

    OMG!!! Beluga caviar! Yes I would have the same for US90or even more anytime! With that reassurance of quality of course. Forget everything else. I was one of those who answered beluga caviar in your polls.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 9:56 pm

     
  26. sister says:

    I wish my last meal will be mallosol (lightly salted) fresh, beluga. It doesn’t get any better.
    Had fabulous beluga in Moscow, from Azerbajian, and brought back a kilo. Won’t happen again I suppose, but one can dream.

    Aug 4, 2008 | 10:38 pm

     
  27. jafores says:

    I really enjoy Caviar, and agree that it is best eaten with slightly toasted bread or blinis only. and of course a little butter never hurts. But for me although Beluga is the absolute best, for the money I would rather have sevruga or even malosol so I can have more! MM Because of your Post The Mrs. and I just Opened a 112GM Can of Paddlefish Caviar I brought home from Zabar’s its only $50 for the can. its not bad at all….

    Aug 5, 2008 | 12:55 am

     
  28. Apicio says:

    I think I mentioned here elsewhere a cousin finding himself part of a delegation to Moscow once where their hosts oohed and aahed at the load of lakatan they brought while they themselves tried their mightiest to strike just the right balance between gushy appreciation and impeccable diplomacy in scarfing down the quantity of caviar they were feted with. Btw, while we’re in cloud nine, did you also pick up an ounce or two of Iranian saffron?

    Aug 5, 2008 | 5:14 am

     
  29. Marketman says:

    Apicio, yup, you got it… definitely had to get the saffron, the finest i have smelled or seen. My apologies everyone, I am traveling on business, hence the slow response to all of your comments… will catch up later today hopefully….

    Aug 5, 2008 | 9:06 am

     
  30. inked_chef says:

    MM …. where can you buy iranian/russian beluga 000 caviar in manila? i know santis has some but not sure how long they have had it.

    Aug 5, 2008 | 1:47 pm

     
  31. Marketman says:

    inked chef, I have never seen beluga at Santis, they carry other types of caviar, however…

    Aug 5, 2008 | 2:16 pm

     
  32. inked_chef says:

    thanks MM… i checked this afternoon and they have sevruga and imperial osetra… any idea on where to get beluga?

    Aug 5, 2008 | 10:09 pm

     
  33. Avic says:

    MM, as I was reading this I felt like I was tasting the caviar myself! aliw!

    Aug 6, 2008 | 2:09 am

     
  34. Marketman says:

    inked chef, I have never seen beluga on offer in Manila. There was a time when just before the Christmas holidays, some individuals or smaller purveyors would bring some in, but I wouldn’t know who they are these days… You might find beluga in H.K., but be prepared for serious BUCKS for a little taste… :)

    Aug 6, 2008 | 7:10 am

     
  35. inked_chef says:

    MM… there are a few pleasures in life that are worth paying for. :-) I was hoping that you would have the insider scoop on where to get beluga. I guess i would have to wait until i go to hong kong and get some.

    Aug 6, 2008 | 8:47 am

     
  36. pistachio says:

    Why not try asking the owners of the local Iranian restaurants, like Arya in Promenade Greenhills) or Hossein’s in Makati? They might be able to source some for you, if they frequently import ingredients from Iran (Note: I’ve never asked them though, it was just an idea that popped into my head).

    Aug 6, 2008 | 11:30 am

     
  37. thelma says:

    ON ONE OF THE CRUISES WE WENT TO, DIFFERENT KINDS OF CAVIAR WERE DISPLAYED AND SERVED ALONG WITH THE SUMPTUOUS BUFFET. IT LOOKED GOOD BUT I WAS NOT TOO CRAZY ABOUT IT….

    Aug 7, 2008 | 3:03 am

     
  38. connie says:

    That last picture looks like caviar heaven, I would love to burst them roes in my mouth. It’s not even fair when I just had some Ikura for dinner. Yeah, the poor man’s caviar. *laughs* To think I used to fight my siblings for the fattest fried galunggong with the most eggs. Now MM, talk about settling for less. *giggles*

    Aug 7, 2008 | 10:55 am

     
  39. roger says:

    What a lucky guy you were! 90USD for this can only mean a good karma. I should consider to follow your shadow during your next trip! BTW: as it has been said before, that last pix is simply hypnotizing. I am in the caviar business myself and whish that one day sturgeon breeders will be capable of breeding huso huso’s too. Farmed caviar is entering into the connoisseurs radar very fast and with a high reputation. Gone are the days of exageratingly high priced eggs. If you ask me, the only caviar one should crave these days is premium farmed caviar. For more, go to zwyercaviar.com and caviarist.com (my blog about caviar). All the best now and keep up with the great posts! Roger

    Nov 10, 2008 | 8:54 pm

     
  40. rajabf says:

    Just came back from the bazaar, stall 18 to be exact, got 50 grams of beluga 00000 fresh caviar for 90 euros with a free half kilo of peeled pistachios for free. I looked for Ibrahim but he was on vacation his partner was kind enough and explained all the different types of caviar and let me taste 1o different kinds. Great store and great prices you can get beluga 00000 but a saltier version wit a different production date for half the price….and normal beluga for much less then half…

    Mar 24, 2009 | 12:26 am

     
  41. Mehrdad says:

    Growing up In Iran, I remember that my father used to buy fresh Iranian caviar in 250 gr cans right from the fishermen at caspiann sea shores. At the time of islamic revolution of 1979 and after that, the clergy regime announced that the strogen fish and caviar was Haram ( forbidden by religion).. and so you could buy caviar ( and lots of it ) cheap at the black market. We bought it for 5-10 US dollars for a kilogram !! I had caviar for breakfast almost everyday for more than a year ..

    Aug 2, 2009 | 7:56 pm

     
  42. Marketman says:

    Patti, bummer. If I were buying that much, I would bring my own scale. A pretty good digital scale at Williams Sonoma is some $75 or so, and very small, well worth the $500 you guys got “shortchanged” or “underweighed”…

    Nov 9, 2009 | 1:31 pm

     
  43. Sicil says:

    Dear Mr. MM,

    My husband and I trully enjoyed your post about your trip to the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. Your pictures and your stories brought us back to Istanbul again(eventhough we were there couple of weeks ago)

    Iran has a lot of things to offer – food, pastry, nature, you name it, they have and Caviar is one of their priced item. I have seen them being sold at Iranian Airport (both in their International and Domestic) but since I’m not a “Fish Person”, I was not interested at all.

    Caviar isn’t really my thing…I only saw it once when my father in law bought a whole bunch from Shiraz, Iran. When I inquired about the price, he said he paid for $150/100g. I couldn’t believe my ears so I have to double check it with my husband who told me it is right. I guess the prices in Turkey are not that bad but if you really want to get the best, you should go to Iran.

    Anyways, we would loved to read more of your adventure and your travel. Salamat po…

    p.s. for INKED_CHEF: I read that you were told to inquire at ARYA and HOSEEIN. I’m not sure about HOSEEIN but in ARYA maybe you will have good chances. The owner of the restaurant is a Shirazi Iranian married to a Filipino(and so am I – his mother-inlaw and I were on the same flight going back to Shiraz from Phils last year). If you meet him or the lady owner, maybe you could ask them and I’m sure they will gladly help you. Goodluck!

    Nov 23, 2009 | 5:20 pm

     
  44. emsy says:

    my tita who traveled to Istanbul once took pains to bring home beluga caviar. other relatives enjoyed it and I did find it pretty good…but I’m not really crazy over it. acquired taste talaga

    Nov 24, 2009 | 1:45 pm

     
 

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