For thousands of years, nearly every civilization north of the equator has a connection with caviar. The delicate, lightly salted roe of the sturgeon has a fantastic reputation across continents, from the eastern rivers of China to Israel to the inlets and basins of the southern United States.
With 27 species of sturgeon discovered around the world, origins and locations mean everything when differentiating types of caviar, but nothing quite matches the legendary status of Iranian caviar from the Caspian Sea.
In this article, we’re diving deep into the history of caviar in Iran, starting from ancient times and leading up to the present day.
We’ll discuss the unique characteristics of the caviar itself and why people pay such a hefty price per ounce in modern times. In a rapidly changing world, you might just be able to taste some of these Caspian treasures for yourself if you know where to look.
HISTORY OF IRANIAN CAVIAR
Here’s the funny thing about the history of Iranian caviar – it begins long before history even existed!
We have a vague idea of how ancient Persian and Greek civilizations harvested and cured sturgeon roe, but like so many aspects of these cultures, the details are shrouded in mystery.
That’s simply part of the appeal for historians and connoisseurs alike.
What we know for sure is that the earliest records of Caviar originate from the southern Caspian Sea around the 4th century B.C. In fact, the Persian word Khaviyar is the word that inspired the modern term we know and love.
Archeologists have uncovered records of shipments and bartering dialogues between merchants regarding large quantities of Persian caviar, which tells us that the product has been in high demand for many thousands of years.
The Persian Empire took full advantage of the abundant sturgeon populations in this time, and prior to the global demand for oil, caviar was likely the most valuable and desirable export in the region. As most caviar connoisseurs know, the name "caviar" only applies to roe from sturgeon fish. Other fish eggs like trout roe or salmon roe are also delicious, but they are not considered caviar.
As territories, international trade, and politics grew more complex throughout classic antiquity, the caviar industry in the area remained a constant source of cash flow and regional identity.
THE GOLDEN ERA OF IRANIAN CAVIAR
Despite countless shifts in political and cultural power throughout the pre-modern and medieval eras, caviar continued to be an economic powerhouse for merchants and elites in the region.
Caviar was enjoyed by high-class members of Roman society and most notoriously consumed in large quantities by the Czars of Old Russia.
It was during this time that caviar went from an everyday item in Iranian culture to a certified luxury, leading to heavy fishing of sturgeon in the region.
MODERN POLITICS AND PRODUCTION
Due to overfishing and more stringent state control, caviar production in modern Iran took a hit in the 20th century. Caviar has long been symbolic of friendly relations with Western nations, and thus the subject of controversy for regional fishers and producers.
Sanctions and restrictions made it impossible for Iran to export its famous sturgeon caviars to the United States in the 2010s, although improved relations with Russia allowed production to flourish.
Now that there’s more wiggle room in terms of trade, premium caviar is more accessible than before – you just need to proceed with caution when purchasing. More on that later.
Of course, overfishing remains an issue for Iranian caviar and other regions across the globe. Regulations have been put in place, but they’re only so effective in maintaining healthy populations.
We hope that through diplomacy, regulation, and smarter aquaculture practices, we can return to a time when Iranian caviar is widely available to the world. For now, it’s hard to get your hands on unless you’ve got connections and a lot of spare cash!
IRANIAN CAVIAR SPECIES
Enough history for one day – let’s talk about the varieties of beautiful Iranian caviar that people have been dying to get their hands on for centuries.
Arguably the most desirable caviar type on the planet, the Caspian Sea is home to the massive yet elusive Beluga – also known as the Huso Huso Sturgeon. The species is heavily endangered and difficult to farm-raise, making it that much more coveted.
We aren’t exaggerating the size of this enormous ancient fish. It can grow up to 30 feet in length and hold up to 100 pounds of roe at full size.
One look at the big pea-sized pearls and you can see why this is such a prized product in the world of caviar. Not only is the roe an impressive size, but it also delivers on delicate, buttery flavor with a remarkably long finish.
Iranian Beluga caviar might not be attainable in the West by traditional means, so if you can get a scoop of the good stuff, consider yourself lucky.
It might be a slight step down from the legendary Beluga, but Iranian Ossetra caviar is still something to behold. The product originates from the species Acipenser Gueldenstaedtii, better known as the Diamond sturgeon, Russian sturgeon, or Danube sturgeon.
Once again, this fish is a heavy hitter, growing over 250 pounds and reproducing slowly. It’s considered a critically endangered species, factoring into the high price point of its caviar.
Ossetra pearls are a bit smaller than Beluga as well, but still pack a punch in terms of flavor, featuring butter and nut-based profiles. Authentic Royal Ossetra is available for purchase if you want a taste of this legendary caviar.
Coming from the Sevruga sturgeon (Acipenser Stellatus), the luxurious Sevruga caviar is considered on-par with Osetra caviar in terms of flavor, but isn’t as costly to produce or obtain.
The fish is slightly smaller and less endangered, producing smaller grey eggs that still taste delicious. It can be found throughout the many rivers north of the Caspian, ranging west into central Europe.
Newcomers to the world of caviar might want to give Sevruga a try to get a feel for authentic Iranian caviar without breaking the bank.
A subsection of Beluga caviar, Almas is a golden caviar from the rare albino sturgeon aged between 60 and 100 years old.
By far the most expensive caviar on the planet, it fetches an average price of $25,000 per kilogram! It’s no wonder that the term Almas means “diamond” in Russian.
The eggs are known for a very rich and creamy flavor with intense nuttiness on the palate. This one may not be on your grocery list any time soon, but it’s something to admire from afar and put on your wish list for the long term.
OBTAINING IRANIAN CAVIAR TODAY
With all this talk of premium Iranian caviar, you might be wondering how to get some of these luxurious pearls on your plate – more specifically, your mother-of-pearl spoon.
This is easier said than done due to restrictions and their high price tag, but you can indulge in this delicacy if you know where to look on the web. Here are some tips to bring Iranian caviar into your life.
BE WARY OF LABELS
Navigating labels is key in the world of caviar, and it’s very important that you know the details before putting money down on Iranian caviar.
Rather than going by the flashy front of the caviar tin, look closely at the CITES label on the back of the tin or in the online description.
This will tell you the species, the source code of the caviar (captive or wild), the country code, the year of harvest, as well as other information that ensures authenticity.
Make sure the label features the “IR” country code – that way, you know it’s truly Iranian in origin.
Since nearly every species of Iranian caviar is verging on extinction, you might want to try buying from a sustainable aquaculture operation that ensures the protection of Ossetra, Sevruga, and other sturgeon types like white sturgeon caviar, Siberian sturgeon caviar, or Kaluga caviar.
The roe itself might not be from the Caspian Sea, but the species can be traced back to this location, giving you the next best thing in terms of taste, texture, and authenticity.
This will also save you some money and give you peace of mind in a world that needs more sustainable solutions across the entire economy.
BUY FROM REPUTABLE SOURCES
As you might imagine, the legitimacy of Iranian caviar on the web is a little foggy. You want to know exactly where the product is coming from, how much you’re getting, and be certain that shipping and handling are professionally organized.
Read reviews, make some calls, and shop around before buying caviar of any kind – it’s an investment that shouldn’t be taken too lightly.
Iranian caviar is arguably the best on the planet thanks to the unique conditions of the southern Caspian Sea. Even if you can’t get your hands on real Iranian caviar, grab your caviar spoon and find a way to have premium caviar delivered to your home for maximum enjoyment.