China produces loads of “black gold,” but will caviar lovers bite?

Black pearls that taste like power itself.
Black pearls that taste like power itself.
Image: Reuters
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Caviar has long been associated with power. The name for the luxury sturgeon eggs is thought to be derived from the Turkish and Persian terms “chav-jar” and “khavyar,” which mean “piece of power.” Indeed, the earliest record of caviar being eaten dates back to 1240 when the powerful Batu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, is reported to have enjoyed the fish eggs in Russia, accompanied by hot apple preserves.

The powerful snack then traveled through Europe, becoming a staple at fancy occasions, associated in the popular imagination with the Caspian sea region, and specifically Russia, which used to dominate world caviar production. But Russian production has stalled since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and sturgeon overfishing has led to prohibitions on natural caviar in recent decades. Today, most of the world’s caviar comes from sturgeon fish farms in 50 nations, including the US, France, Italy and Iran. However, only China is poised to become the world’s caviar capital.

More than half of the world’s commercial caviar farms are now based in China, where both local consumption and exports are booming, the South China Morning Post reports. The demand for the pricey fish eggs, known as “black gold” or alternately “black pearls,” is rising dramatically in China. As a result, the country has become one of the world’s major caviar producers and consumers, part of a trend of wealthy Chinese increasingly eating high-end foreign foods, including foie gras, black truffles, and artisanal cheeses, many of which are produced locally.

By 2020, China is projected to consume 100 tons of caviar every year, the China Sturgeon Association predicted last year. Currently, about 200 tons of caviar are produced worldwide annually. That means Chinese luxury lovers will be snacking on half of the world’s fancy fish eggs in short order. And China is a major caviar exporter as well, with local companies springing up and counting on the fact that demand will only grow. Between 2012 and 2017, Chinese fish farmers exported nearly 150 tons of caviar.

The UK-based market research company Technavio forecast that the global caviar market will be worth $1.55 billion by 2021, up almost 75% from 2016 as the the food’s limited availability and high cost make it ever more attractive to luxury consumers. Producers in China want in on this business, but they admit that there are obstacles.

A major one is psychological. Luxury food purveyors and consumers worldwide aren’t used to thinking of China when it comes to caviar. Pioneer exporters, like Kaluga Queen, which first began selling Chinese-raised caviar in 2006, initially had difficulties convincing people to buy their goods. As the deputy manager of Kaluga Queen, Xia Yongtao, told China Daily last year, “At first, we were treated with such bias that once they heard it’s ‘Made-in-China’, people would turn us down immediately without opening the can and having a taste.”

But the company in 2011 secured a contract to supply the German airline Lufthansa with caviar in its first-class cabins and Kaluga Queen’s success in the intervening years has inspired others to follow in its footsteps. Top caviar purveyors, like Paris-based Petrossian, reportedly do purchase Chinese caviar, however, they tend not to say that this is where their sturgeon eggs originated.

Caviar Colony, another company that farms caviar in China, says it aims to change the world’s mind and biases. Benjamin Goh, a Singaporean investor in the company, tells the South China Morning Post that he wants to bring China’s black gold to the globe and dispel the sense that Chinese caviar farmers cannot compete with world’ best sturgeon eggs. Certainly, the company makes a claim that no Caspian Sea sturgeon fisherman ever could. Caviar Colony says its fish receive a special food blend, which includes traditional Chinese medicinal herbs.