When you first hear about the lumpfish, you might not have a mouth-watering reaction. This is a fish with an unusual name and an even more unusual appearance. They have some surprising characteristics that make them a unique presence in the animal kingdom.
However, we urge you to give the lumpfish a closer look, especially with regard to its roe. Lumpfish roe – often called lumpfish caviar – is a delightful and affordable ingredient worth trying more than once, and we’re here to explain what makes it special.
You may have a few questions about lumpfish and its roe, and that’s justified! We’re here to give you the full breakdown of the lumpfish species, the unique qualities of its eggs, and whether we can really call it caviar.
We’ll also compare lumpfish roe to true sturgeon caviar and explain some key differences so that you know what to expect when sourcing and enjoying these ingredients.
WHAT IS THE LUMPFISH?
If you’ve never heard of lumpfish before, you’re in the right place.
Here are the basics of the lumpfish, where it comes from, what it looks like, and other key details:
ORIGIN AND ENVIRONMENT
“Cyclopterus lumpus” is also known as the lumpfish or lumpsucker, is the only species of fish belonging to the genus Cyclopterus.
This fish is native to the North Atlantic but occupies a wide range of territory, ranging as far as the Arctic Ocean all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay.
It can be found East to West as well, from the Canadian coastline to the English Channel. The lumpfish is a rather resilient specimen, surviving in some of the world’s coldest shallow waters and reproducing at rapid rates. When sturgeon species declined in the 1960s, the highly available Lumpfish rapidly gained popularity.
APPEARANCE AND ATTRIBUTES
No offense to the lumpfish and its family, but this is not the most attractive fish in the sea.
While some fish are adored for lovely colors and sleek, sporty aesthetics, the lumpfish earns its name with a rounded, lopsided body and eyes that stick out at odd angles on either side.
There is also a series of knobs or “lumps” along the surface of the lumpfish’s back, with a thick layer of fat under its skin.
The lumpfish isn’t particularly large, either. Females can grow up to 20 inches in length, while males don’t typically exceed 15 inches long. They usually weigh between eight and 11 pounds.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the lumpfish is its ability to stick to surfaces using suction discs formed on its pelvic fins. This allows the fish to hide on rocks, blend in with its variable skin color, and leap out to surprise and consume its prey.
Some biologists speculate that the lumpfish was once a bottom-dwelling species based on these unique characteristics, including a lack of swim bladder. Researchers are still discovering more about this unique creature.
One thing is for sure: what the lumpfish lacks in looks it makes up for in under-the-sea smarts!
FISHING AND PRODUCTION
While lumpfish can be found across many thousands of square miles in the Atlantic Ocean, they are abundant along the coasts of Eastern Canada, Greenland, and Scandinavia.
Therefore, fishermen don’t have to venture too far to collect more than enough lumpfish to meet market demand. Denmark, Iceland, and Canada are the main producers of lumpfish roe, although exports are rising with increased interest from Western and Eastern markets.
Smoked and cured lumpfish meat is popular in some parts of Northern Europe and considered a delicacy in Asia, although roe remains the most desirable product of this fish worldwide.
Lumpfish roe is produced and prepared similarly to other types of modern roe. The unfertilized eggs of the female are removed and undergo processing and cleansings to remove all impurities.
The best roe is then dried and salted, while less desirable eggs move into a strong salt brine for further processing and use in other products.
While some lumpfish roe is fresh, most products are pasteurized in high heat to ensure safe consumption and longer shelf life. Some products are also treated with preservatives, dyed, or enhanced with natural flavors.
Like with any roe product, do your research about the farming practices and know what you’re getting before you buy! Thankfully, the best lumpfish roe is quite affordable – roughly $20 for 12 ounces.
The natural colors of lumpfish roe will vary greatly depending on the environment of the fish. Some roe is clear and grey, while others are a light orange, yellow, or caramel color. Many reports of rainbow-colored lumpfish roe, which could surprise anyone!
For this reason, most commercial lumpfish roe is dyed deep red or black to ensure consistency and put any shopper at ease, as black lumpfish caviar or red lumpfish caviar looks more like stereotypical caviar.
The size of lumpfish roe is also rather small since females can spawn up to 200,000 eggs at a time. These are not the large and luscious pearls you may expect from authentic caviar, so be aware of this before buying.
FLAVOR AND TEXTURE
Lumpfish roe is known for its salty-sweet flavor with rich umami despite a short finish.
The small pearls are rather crunchy and crisp, creating a nice contrast to softer ingredients on the palate.
You won’t need to take extensive tasting notes when enjoying lumpfish roe. The flavors are somewhat one-dimensional, but it does the job in the right time and place.
Spread it on toast points, load up the garnishes, or create unique dishes of your own with lumpfish as a featured topping. While it might not be as luxurious as fine caviar, such as Beluga or Osetra, it still tastes great in hors d'oeuvres like canapes, blini, and dips, or to garnish soups.
For the price, you can use as much as you want, so feel free to experiment with larger dishes like pasta, omelets, homemade sushi, or risotto. Of course, we'd save the mother of pearl spoons and creme fraiche for the good stuff when you want the best eating experience possible.
There's plenty of nutrition to be found on the ocean floor—or in this case, the cold coastal waters of Iceland.
Lumpfish roe is a surprisingly high-quality source of nutrition, packing considerable protein and nutrient content with low calories and minimal cholesterol.
If you need a little punch of paleo power in your daily diet, lumpfish roe might be just the serving of food you’re looking for! It's a great addition to your groceries that won't break the bank.
COMPARISON TO CAVIAR
While lumpfish roe and sturgeon caviar may share some surface-level similarities, there could not be a better example of “apples and oranges” when it comes to a direct comparison.
First of all, lumpfish roe is not technically caviar. Products are often given this name to appeal to a wider audience, but as we know, true caviar can only come from a member of the sturgeon family – rare fish that are far more difficult to cultivate and manage with higher daily values (DV) of nutrients.
Real caviar pearls are larger, have a much wider range of colors, and feature much more complex flavor profiles. The price of authentic caviar reflects the labor-intensive process and high demand for the real thing.
Don’t be fooled by actual product packaging labeled “lumpfish caviar” because now you know the truth! Lumpfish roe is the proper name of these products, and they don’t hold a candle to real caviar.
IS LUMPFISH ROE WORTH TRYING?
Lumpfish roe is a beloved ingredient for a good reason:
It’s accessible, affordable, and quite versatile. You can use heaps of lumpfish caviar for every course on your menu and not break a sweat about the budget!
But when matched up against real sturgeon caviar such as Sevruga, Royal Ossetra, or Kaluga Hybrid, lumpfish aren't even in the same realm. While lumpfish may be better for everyday eating, caviar is the undisputed main event of the evening.
Try out lumpfish roe for yourself and experiment with its unique uses in the kitchen, but when it comes time to pop a bottle of champagne and celebrate, caviar is second to none.