Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Caviar: The black gold of the Black Sea

Caviar spoons: salmon roe (left) and sturgeon roe (right) on mother of pearl. Photo by Catfisheye on Flickr and via THOR on Wikimedia. CC BY 2.0.

Caviar, goose liver, and truffle are the three top delicacies consumed in the world. Caviar is probably the most delicious. It is made from the unfertilized eggs of the sturgeon, of which there are twenty-eight fish species belonging to the family Acipenseridae, and is often valued at $1,000 or more per ounce. The sturgeons’ reproduction is by a no-touch technique, avoiding what Sir Thomas Browne called the vulgar act of conjunction. Instead, the males and females swim side-by-side and the female releases eggs and the male releases the milt (like sperm), and fertilization occurs when the milt meets the egg in the water.

Caviar is made by capturing the female sturgeon and extracting the ovarian sac (roe) that contains the delicious eggs. Beluga caviar is the most prized and expensive caviar. Osestra, Kaluga, and Sevruga varieties are less so, and there are also Russian, Amur (or Japanese), Adriatic, Siberian, Persian, Startlet, Starry, Paddlefish, Hackleback, and White varieties. The Beluga sturgeon comes primarily from the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan, but it is also be found in the Black Sea and occasionally in the Adriatic.

The history of caviar goes back to the ancient Persians. Caviar was also popular in ancient Greece and Rome. In Europe it was particularly identified with the Russian empire and its aristocracy. The process of producing caviar is complex and requires great care, a controlled environment, and meticulous monitoring. At maturity, which for some species can take up to twenty years, the roe is harvested, carefully screened, rinsed to remove impurities, and lightly salted before being graded, packaged, and stored under strict conditions.

Caviar is best served simply, cold, in small portions, using a non-metallic teaspoon, spread thinly on bread or crackers. It may be eaten with thinly sliced cucumber, lemon pieces, sour cream, hard-cooked egg—yolks and whites chopped separately—and minced onion. It pairs well with champagne or chilled vodka. Claimed to have health benefits (for those who can afford it!), it is a good source of protein, omega-3-fatty acids, vitamins, iron, selenium, and zinc.

Because of overfishing putting several sturgeon species at risk of extinction, international efforts have been made to regulate and protect sturgeon populations. International conventions and agreements have been established to manage and monitor the trade of sturgeon and caviar. As the sturgeon has unique “ganoid” scales that are tough, do not overlap, and cannot be scraped away without ripping the skin of the fish itself, caviar cannot be consumed under traditional kosher rules. It is halal (allowed) for liberal Muslim Sunnis but might have been haram (forbidden) in Iran were not for the potential loss of considerable state revenues.1 Elsewhere, some individuals who prioritize animal welfare have also chosen to avoid caviar because they consider the ways of collecting it cruel and unethical unless the eggs are squeezed out of the body without cutting, to produce “ethical caviar.”


  1. Chehabi HE. How Caviar Turned Out to Be Halal. Gastronomica 7, no. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 17-2.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Spring 2024



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