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CAVIAR FAQ (*fish eggs)

What is caviar?
The unfertilized eggs of fish -- oocytes -- the developmental stage of the eggs just prior to maturation into eggs suitable for fertilization. It is high in protein, vitamins and minerals, but it has a high sodium content.

What is roe?
Fish eggs.

How is caviar harvested from sturgeons?
Sturgeon are caught in large nets, then stunned. Once back on land and in the processing plant, a precise incision is cut in the belly of the fish and the egg sack is removed whole. Sturgeon usually are killed to obtain their caviar.

How is caviar processed?
Once the egg sack is freed from the cavity of the fish, it is placed over a large wire grate. The eggs are gently passed back and forth over this “sieve” to separate “berries” of different sizes.

Why does caviar cost so much?
Bigger eggs don’t necessarily mean better. Beluga, one of the largest and the rarest of the caviar-producing sturgeons, yields the largest eggs, but the fewest in total number. It costs more because its supply is so limited. An ounce of beluga caviar costs more than $80. Tennessee River caviar costs about $10 an ounce.

Why does caviar come in different sizes and colors?
The color and size of the caviar depends on the age of the female and its diet. Color and quality have no relationship. Beluga ranges in color from light to dark gray, while osetra varies from nearly yellow-gray to brown-black. North American sturgeon and paddlefish produce light gray to black eggs.

Where does caviar come from?
The majority of the world’s caviar comes from the Caspian Sea -- Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan and Iran. However, as sturgeon populations in the Caspian Sea are depleted, these fish are being sought in other waters -- including in North America, home to several sturgeon species.

Why does most of the caviar come from the Caspian Sea?
Caviar hasn’t always been an exotic, exclusive and expensive import delicacy. Until the turn of this century the US produced 90 percent of the world’s caviar. Nicknamed “Albany Beer,” caviar was actually given away free with beer in saloons for the same reason salty peanuts are given away today. Sturgeon was so abundant that the meat was sold for a penny a pound. But by 1910, lake sturgeons were nearly extinct and American production was stopped. In 1925, the Caspian Sea fisheries began the commercial production we know today.

Who eats caviar?
The greatest demand for caviar is in Europe, the US, Canada and Japan. Major customers include airlines, international hotels, cruise ship lines, duty free shops and supermarkets. Most of the caviar consumed in the US is imported. According to customs records, the US imported more than 82 metric tons in 1995. This amounts to a retail value close to $33 million.

What are sturgeon?
Sturgeon are one of the oldest living types of bony fish. Considered “living fossils,” they evolved 250 million years ago, surviving the disappearance of the dinosaur. Sturgeon are generally long-lived and therefore particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure because they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 6 to 25 years of age, depending on the species. Of the 25 species of sturgeon, nine occur in North America. Beluga sturgeon from the Caspian Sea are one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, measuring up to 24 feet in length and weighing more than 2,800 pounds.

What are paddlefish?
One of only two living species from an old group of ancient fishes, paddlefish can grow to six feet or more. This filter feeder normally lives in dark, algae-rich water, but its long snout contains many sensory cells that allow it to navigate and detect the presence of food. The snout may also help stabilize the fish while its mouth is wide open. Its tasty roe has earned the paddlefish the nickname “Chattanooga Beluga.”

Why are sturgeon and paddlefish globally threatened?
The World Conservation Union considers all but two of the world’s 27 sturgeon and paddlefish species globally threatened. Consumer demand for caviar and the collapse of Russian law enforcement have caused a boom in illegal poaching. Habitat destruction has also contributed to the decline of these fish.

The World Wildlife Fund suggests these options for action:
• Don’t buy beluga, sevraga, ossetra or caviar from the Caspian region, which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran.
• If you can’t live without it, try this recipe for imitation caviar:


1 medium eggplant (about 1 lb.)
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbs. green onion, diced
1/2 tsp. soy sauce
2 Tbs. minced parsley
1 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 Tbs. fresh basil, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)

To prepare: Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise. Bake, cut side down, on a greased cookie sheet at 400° for 60 minutes. As the eggplant cools, gently squeeze out the excess water. Use a spoon to scoop pulp from the skin. Place the pulp in a bowl and mash with a fork (or place in processor and process until smooth). Using a garlic press, crush the garlic into the eggplant. Add all of the other ingredients and blend well. Cover and chill.

Makes about 3-1/2 cups. Spread on sesame crackers and garnish with chopped hard-boiled egg and chopped onions.

(Borrowed, with some slight embellishment from, The Internet Chef.)

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