Axis of Fish Eggs

Sure, Iran is our enemy. But its caviar is so good. Here, just try a little taste. …

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The United States increasingly relies on its former enemy Russia to provide a stable supply of oil at a time when we prefer to do less business with nasty Islamic regimes such as Iran. But when it comes to another expensive, oozy black substance packaged in metal containers, the U.S. government is suggesting that we rely less on Russia, which has historically provided a stable supply, and more on a charter member of the Axis of Evil.

On April 21, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the beluga sturgeon, also known as Huso huso, on the threatened-species list. The prehistoric fish, generally harvested in Russia’s Caspian Sea fisheries, produces the world’s most expensive caviar. A single 1-ton fish can provide nearly 100 kilos of black gold. The cost: up to $3,700 per kilo.

The government also hinted that, come fall, it might place beluga sturgeon on the endangered-species list, a move that would end all importation of beluga caviar. The Russians responded by jacking up the price of beluga so high that most dealers have already stopped importing it. As a result, high-end caviar fans, and the companies that cater to them, have been forced to look elsewhere for the next-best thing in fish eggs. Elsewhere turns out to be the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. Iran—sponsor of terrorists, nuclear proliferator, authoritarian theocracy—is a better steward of its sturgeon population than our newly capitalistic friends, the Russians.

Ordinarily, trading with Iran is verboten, thanks to comprehensive embargoes and sanctions imposed by the United States. But in the spring of 2000, the U.S. government, trying to encourage moderate elements in the Iranian regime, lifted a portion of the embargo to allow trade in food products—such as pistachio nuts, dried fruit, and caviar—and in carpets. And caviar importers couldn’t be happier. “We’ve concentrated on the ossetra, which is just lovely caviar,” said Mark Federman, an owner of the iconic Lower East Side fish shop Russ & Daughters. “I think the Iranian by and large is the best caviar experience today.” Russ & Daughters carries Malossol Iranian Osetra, “for those who demand and can afford the very best.” (The prices, seen here, run up to $799 per kilo.) Browne Trading, based in Portland, Maine, is selling Iranian Caviar Astara at $2,200 per kilo. And last year Petrossian, the Tiffany of fish-egg purveyors, placed a sturgeon egg of Iranian vintage—Petrossian Imperial Special Reserve Persicus Caviar—at the top of its price list. Its Tsar Imperial Beluga isn’t available at present. “It’s the closest to the beluga in age and the size of the egg, although not in taste,” says Eve Vega, executive director of Petrossian.

Importing from Iran represents a homecoming of sorts for the Petrossian family, Iranian Christians who fled Russia for Paris after the revolution and opened up their boutique on the Left Bank in 1920. During the Soviet era, Petrossian enjoyed exclusive rights on much of Russia’s harvest. Until the 1950s, says Eve Vega, the Iranians simply allowed their fish to swim north, in large part because Muslims don’t eat any part of scaleless * fish like sturgeon. “It wasn’t until the Shah of Iran decided they were losing a big part of their income that they decided it was OK to fish for it.”

Caviar comes from sturgeon, of which there are 24 species in the world and which can be found in habitats ranging from the Hudson River to the Caspian Sea, a body of water the size of France that is the center of the global caviar industry. In the Caspian, four species predominate: the beluga, most prevalent in the northern Caspian, takes 18 to 20 years to mature and produces the largest eggs, which have a rich, buttery taste; the Russian ossetra, which mature in 12 to 14 years and whose roe is more pale, with a nutty flavor; its southern counterpart, the Iranian ossetra; and the sevruga, which mature in about seven years. Its salty, rich roe has a smaller, light-gray bead.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, things in the Caspian went downhill quickly. The black market burgeoned, and overfishing wrought havoc on the sturgeon population. “Between 1992 and 1998, anyone who had a fishing boat literally went out to the sea and helped themselves because they realized the Americans would pay the almighty dollar for it,” says Vega. As a result, in 1998 beluga and several other sturgeon species were included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This move also spurred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start scrutinizing Russian fishing practices, which led to this spring’s ruling on the beluga sturgeon.

But Iran’s government-controlled sturgeon fisheries didn’t succumb to the same anarchy. It turns out that an authoritarian theocratic Muslim state is an ideal steward for managing valuable fish. The locals generally don’t want to eat the stuff, and the government deals harshly with rogue operators. Meanwhile, the fact the sturgeon is Iranian provokes little resistance among buyers. “By and large, my customers want the best caviar they can get,” says Mark Federman of Russ & Daughters.

And so the purchases of today’s caviar connoisseurs may be supporting a nation whose interests clash with our own. Is it worth it? That’s in the eye—or rather the mouth—of the taster. The vast majority of us wouldn’t know Iranian caviar from Russian from a slimy ball of salt. Truly great caviar is so expensive that you’re unlikely to get it at a wedding reception or a party, or even in a restaurant. The Manhattan restaurant Norma’s—fancy breakfast all day!—this spring ran a promotion for the Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata. Six eggs, a pound of lobster, and 10 ounces of Petrossian sevruga caviar for $1,000. A smaller portion with a single ounce of the black stuff is $100.

Your correspondent was afforded the opportunity to taste the Iranian product at Petrossian, alongside Kazakh sevruga and a new American farm-raised variety. (Call it Freedom Caviar.) And I spared no effort in getting to the bottom of the story.

How do you eat something that costs $3,700 per kilo? Very carefully. Under the direction of Eve Vega, I ladled some of each caviar out on a gold palette (silver leaves the delicate roe with a metallic taste) and spread it onto a triangular piece of bread. “Use the bread as a conduit,” she suggested. High-end caviar is best enjoyed straight, without any blinis or garnishes that mask the taste. I slurped up the grayish mass but was hesitant to bite something so delicate. The taste, salty and rich, meanders over the taste buds. Delicious! “That’s the Caspian Sea that you’re tasting,” Vega said. As I cleansed my palate with a shot of chilled Cristal vodka, I nodded. After repeating the exercise several times over, I could feel myself floating on that slightly salty sea.

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a new rule, hinting that it might not place the beluga on the endangered-species list this fall. And so the beluga may return to bump the Iranian fish from atop the caviar ladder. In the meantime, connoisseurs can rest secure knowing there’s an alternate supply of high-end fish eggs available. And gourmands can indulge themselves, knowing that they’re doing their part to promote international harmony.

Correction, July 8, 2004: The article originally stated that Muslims don’t eat sturgeon because it is a scaled fish. In fact, Muslims don’t eat sturgeon because it is a scaleless fish. (Return to the corrected sentence.)