Why Hong Kong restaurants are using Asian farmed caviar

With restrictions on the sale of wild sturgeon caviar, consumers have turned to high-quality farmed roe from China, Japan and other Asian countries

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 April, 2017, 6:07pm

Caviar is back on the menu. Farmed fish roe from Europe, the Americas, and, increasingly, from Asia, has now reached a level of quality comparable to the precious black pearls of yesteryear from wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea.

Most of the 27 species of sturgeon have been fished almost to extinction in the wild, but some are thriving in international aquaculture.

Sturgeon caviar – purists insist there is no other kind – has been produced for many years in China, but the fish are now also being farmed for their roe and meat in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.

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Until April 18, Miyazaki Caviar 1983 is being featured exclusively on the menus of The Lounge and The Blue Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel, and Hong Kong is the first market outside Japan in which the product has been sold.

The Japanese caviar is also unusual in that it has been preserved not by the traditional method of salt-curing – although some salting is involved – but by the flash-freezing technique the Japanese use for tuna.

“The first sturgeon came to Japan in 1983 from what was then the Soviet Union, but then we had no idea how to grow these creatures,” recalls Motoo Sakamoto, president and CEO of Japan Caviar.

That fish was a Siberian sturgeon, and it didn’t take to Japanese waters.

After some experimentation, however, the Japanese settled on Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu as a breeding location, and the white sturgeon, native to North America, as a suitable species.

In 2013 the new caviar became available in Japan, and was served to world leaders at the G7 summit in Tokyo in 2016 – Vladimir Putin among them.

“He tasted our caviar. The original idea was to pair Russian caviar with fugu fish but it was decided that Miyazaki caviar was better for the dish. He finished it,” says Sakamoto.

The caviar is unusual in having very low salinity at only three per cent, producing a very delicate umami flavour.

“The intention is to make something beautiful and delicate with great purity of taste which can be sensitively matched to Japanese cuisine,” says Sakamoto.

“We want pearls which are clear and crisp. There are so many colourful ingredients in Japanese cuisine. Once you add black to it there is an extra element of sophistication. We are very focused on the roundness of the eggs. Any damaged ones are picked out one by one by hand.”

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Some of the chefs interviewed for this story expressed reservations about frozen caviar, but Four Seasons executive chef Andrea Accordi is a believer.

“I’m very happy to be the first chef in Hong Kong to launch this caviar,” he says. “It’s really good to use with Japanese food, but also with a lot of Western delicacies. The shock-freezing goes so fast that it does not create particles of water in the product, so when you defrost it – slowly – it’s fresh. You cannot recognise that this was a frozen product. The pearls are still beautiful, round, shiny and a little bit crunchy. It’s as though you are eating basically natural eggs. It’s less creamy, of course, but the freezing maintains the product intact without any problem.”

According to Sakamoto, Japan Caviar currently has a stock of 50,000 white sturgeon, and harvests 200 to 300 per year, but Japan has a long way to go before catching up with China as a producer.

“If China is not leading the world already they will be soon,” says Florian Trento, group executive chef of The Peninsula Hotels. “If you go to Europe, a lot of the Michelin star restaurants in England, France and Germany are using Chinese caviar. [Alain] Ducasse and [Joel] Robuchon are using it.”

At the moment, The Peninsula offers Chinese, American and Italian caviars, although Trento says he is considering changing the two non-Chinese varieties.

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As well as featuring in such dishes as Gaddi’s Kristal caviar on potato ice cream with Iberico de bellota ham and beetroot sponge, and roasted lobster in its shell with parsnip and vanilla purée, root vegetables and chestnut emulsion, all four caviars can be tasted in a class on caviar connoisseurship that Trento presents in the Peninsula Academy programme [see sidebar].

“We’ve been doing it for about three years. It’s a nice vehicle for us to showcase different products, because the farmed caviar now at a good level. You remember when it came in around 10 years ago? It was diabolical. It was like eating mud from the riverbed, because the breeding programmes were in their infancy. They had no clue how to create the right environment.”

Much has changed. Leading French caviar house Kaviari sources its roe in China, Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria and Iran. It is one of the Peninsula’s suppliers, as well as the exclusive caviar source for Alain Ducasse’s restaurants internationally.

Newly opened Rech by Alain Ducasse at the Intercontinental features Kaviari’s Chinese Kristal Gold Caviar, from a hybrid species of sturgeon, in dishes such as the rockfish soup, for which it is a garnish, and the hand-harvested sea scallops, to which it is integral.

“Kaviari was one of the first brands to decide to stop using wild sturgeon for caviar,” says Rech executive chef Stephane Gortina.

“They have a farm close to the Amur River. It is similar to Oscietra, but it has a bigger grain, which is more interesting than a smaller one. It’s buttery, it’s not too salty. The rockfish soup is made with local fish, saffron and Gold caviar. The caviar brings a little saltiness, and makes a simple dish luxurious. [For the other dish], the scallops are white and the caviar brings blackness, so it’s interesting to see, and the scallops are sweet while the caviar has a saltiness and a different texture.”

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Upstairs from Rech at the Intercontinental at Nobu, executive chef Sean Mell is also a believer in using caviar to enhance simple dishes.

“Caviar just seems to fit with simple sushi and nigiri. One of my favourites is the botan ebi with just a little bit of caviar on top so you get that sweetness and creaminess from the shrimp and the roundness and saltiness from the caviar. It creates a nice balance. One of the main dishes we use it on is the toro tartare with the chopped toro with the wasabi soy sauce, a little bit of green onion, and caviar on ice.”

Nobu has its own branded caviar, also sourced in China, but Mell says he uses different types for different effects.

“We’ve even got into using caviar products like pressed caviar and caviar dry sheets where they dehydrate the caviar and you can use it from a peppermill. There are some unique products with super-concentrated caviar flavours which are definitely an acquired taste,” he says.

Gortina and Mell are both too young to have ever worked with caviar from wild Caspian sturgeon – although some of unreliable provenance can still be bought illegally on the black market.

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A tasting of those pearls alongside their farmed counterparts would now be impossible to organise, but Trento believes the quality is now at least close, and points out that now that farming has arrived at sustainable levels, caviar is once again an affordable luxury.

“Prices have stabilised and they’re pretty good. We sell it in the restaurants for somewhere between HK$490 and HK$600 for 10 grams. The most expensive is the beluga at HK$1,800 for 30 grams,” he says.

“A lot of brands are doing very good quality at a price which is not too expensive,” adds Gortina. “Caviar is more accessible to everyone, because the price has come down. Farmed sturgeon has made the supply more stable.”

Caviar tasting and what to drink with it

There is a technique to caviar tasting, as Florian Trento explains.

“You put a spoonful of caviar on your hand [on the side, between the wrist and the thumb], wait a couple of seconds, then eat the whole thing. Press the grains up against the roof of your mouth and savour so you get all the sensations. Then sniff your hand. You shouldn’t be able to smell anything. If it’s fishy at all, it’s not good. Your hand warms the oil of the caviar just a tiny little bit so you get the scents from it,” he says.

“Colour is not so much an indicator. It goes from jet black to silver grey and everything in between. I like the Aston-Martin grey, because it looks nice on a dish, but it’s not an indicator of taste.”

To enjoy the subtler nuances Trento advocates going easy on the condiments.

“Don’t put too much on. People add lemon and that destroys it. Take a bit of toast, or a blini, a dollop of sour cream a big dollop of caviar and that’s it. The acidity of the sour cream enhances the caviar. It’s a nice combination. Don’t add anything else.”

The Peninsula Academy pairs its caviars with their traditional partners, chilled vodka and champagne, but Sean Mell believes sake is equally appropriate.

“It’s got the same mouthfeel you would get from vodka minus the alcohol burn,” he says. “I would probably choose sake over champagne.”

Japan Caviar works closely with high-quality sake producer Dassai, and Motoo Sakamoto recommends Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo to partner the pearls.

Trento however recommends sticking with fizz.

“A nice white wine with a bit of acidity, a Sancerre or something, would also go well, but I still think champagne. You don’t want a beer with it. Opening a tin of caviar is an occasion, so I want champagne.”