People of the Jewish faith have some interesting rules that dictate what they can and can’t eat. These dietary restrictions and standards are known broadly as kashrut, which translates to “kosher.”
While nearly all food must receive a Rabbi’s blessing before they are considered kosher, some foods are strictly prohibited in all circumstances. Even highly devoted Jewish individuals sometimes need a refresher on kosher rules because there is a lot to follow.
That’s why we’re honing in on one food in particular for today’s article—you guessed it: caviar. How does caviar stack up in terms of kosher standards, and are there any cases in which Jewish people can enjoy this delicacy?
The answer is way more interesting than you may expect, so let’s dive in.
Kosher Roe – Acceptable?
There are lots of smaller questions that must be answered to reach a conclusion about whether roe is considered kosher.
Our first curiosity has to do with the practice of eating roe (eggs from creatures of the sea) rather than the specific species that produce that roe.
Since it might seem like an unusual ingredient, at least compared to something like chicken breast or a burger, it's worth finding out if this food is permitted by kosher standards in the first place.
Golden Rule for Kosher Fish (and Roe)
According to ancient texts like the Torah and more recent scholarly publications from the Jewish community, the rules about eating fish roe are clear: If the fish is considered kosher, so are its eggs.
This is good news for Jews who enjoy the exciting flavors and textures of fish roe since this ingredient is still on the table if standards are met by the fish of origin.
This leads us right into another question, however. Which fish are considered kosher, and how does this affect the acceptance of caviar in the kosher rulebook?
Tipping the Scales
Traveling back thousands of years, we see that Rabbis have been pondering and debating over which fish are kosher or not. The arguments seem to come back to one particular feature that sets certain fish apart from the rest: scales.
Yes, the size, shape, and function of fish scales are the central point of debate in the context of kosher law, and certain types do not pass, regardless of their symbology or how delicious the fish may be.
What the Torah Says
As is true in most major religions, primary sources—the Torah, in this case—only give us a glimpse into a concept, an idea, or a law.
What matters most is how these terms are then interpreted for hundreds and thousands of years by academics and members of that religious community.
This is how religions adopt meaning from ancient resources and transform them into ways of life, to be followed and respected.
In the case of fish scales, we only get a snippet of info from the Torah itself. The book says that only fish with scales can be considered kosher, but that’s just the beginning of the story.
In later commentaries and analyses, Jewish scholars asserted that not all scaled fish can earn the kosher label, and here’s where things get interesting.
Only certain scaled fish can be called kosher, and it all depends on the type of scales that cover the skin of the fish. One key factor matters most of all: whether those scales can be easily brushed or scraped away without tearing the skin of the fish.
Knowing that, we enter a brand new dimension of the kosher conversation, all hinging on the nature of a fish species’ scales and how they are removed during the preparation process.
Indeed, there are more types of scales in the broad fish kingdom than you may think.
The small, glistening scales of a sea bass or perch (known as ctenoid scales) are thin, layered, and made primarily of collagen, making them easy to scrape and clean for filleting and cooking—certified kosher, for sure.
Cycloid scales have more of a smooth, soft texture and are greater in size with complex, rounded geometries. These scales can be found on salmon, pike, bream, and trout. Once again, totally kosher because cycloid scales scrape away for quick, safe preparation and consumption.
While the rules may seem complicated, it is the idea of tradition that holds strong and makes kosher law so important to those who observe it.
Sturgeon Scales Break Kosher Rules?
The pivotal point about scales and their removal makes finding kosher fish a bit of a headache in practice. After all, there are thousands of fish species around the world, so how are you supposed to know about their scales when you’re buying filets at the market?
Add the fact that American supermarkets aren’t always upfront about fish species and where they come from, and it makes more sense why practicing Jews stick to kosher markets with vendors they know and trust 100%.
But since our focus is on caviar for the moment, we must focus on the 27 species of sturgeon from which this ingredient comes. As we know, authentic caviar can only come from real sturgeon, which begs the question: Does sturgeon pass the scale test?
Sadly, sturgeon is in a class of its own with unique scales known as ganoid scales. They are smooth, tough, do not overlap, and cannot be scraped away without ripping the skin of the fish itself.
Therefore sturgeon, both its meat and its elegant caviar, cannot be consumed under traditional kosher rules. Other fish with ganoid scales include gars and needlefish, which are also excluded from the kosher dinner table if we’re sticking to the rulebook.
Is there some mystical wisdom to be gathered from the words of the Torah and the scholars that followed?
Perhaps sturgeon were once seen as mythical creatures, and these words warned us of future problems and immorality that has been associated with sturgeon and caviar in centuries past. The good news is that caviar is now more ethical than ever.
But all religious speculation aside, it’s an important lesson nonetheless – since sturgeon scales don’t come off cleanly, the fish can’t be considered kosher, and neither can caviar.
Kosher Delicacies Are Everywhere
It’s always a bit disappointing to learn that a certain type of food is prohibited, especially if you or a kosher-following friend have been looking forward to trying some caviar.
There are so many delicacies to enjoy that are totally kosher-friendly, including many finfish roe products (no shellfish, of course).
It’s also a sign of respect to interface with observant people while acknowledging and understanding their rules. Better to be polite and have some kosher delicacies on hand at your next event because not everyone can eat caviar.
Celebrate with Kosher Friends
Caviar is an exceptional ingredient by all standards, but it doesn’t meet the requirements of kosher law.
Thankfully, there are so many ways to celebrate life and great food with kosher friends and family members, so look for roe alternatives or stick to your favorite traditional foods that always hit the spot.