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Caviar (Ikra)

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Caviar is the processed, salted roe of certain species of fish, most notably the sturgeon (black caviar) and the salmon (red caviar). It is commercially marketed worldwide as a delicacy and is eaten as a garnish or a spread; for example, with hors d'œuvres.

Left: Red caviar with bread.

The word caviar entered English via Italian "caviale", though it is ultimately derived from Persian (Farsi) خاویار, from khaya "egg". In Persian, the word refers to both the sturgeon and its roe; in Russian, the word (ikra), "roe", is used. The Russian word malosol ("little salt") sometimes appears on caviar tins to show that the caviar is minimally salted; typically, caviar contains 4% to 8% salt, with the better-brand varieties generally being less salted.

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This elegant and expensive appetizer is simply sieved and lightly salted fish roe (eggs). Sturgeon roe is premium and considered the "true" caviar. The three main types of caviar are beluga, oestra and sevruga. The best (and costliest) is from the beluga sturgeon that swim in the Caspian Sea, which is bordered by Russia and Iran. Caviar production is a major industry for both countries. Beluga caviar is prized for its soft, extremely large (pea-size) eggs. It can range in color from pale silver-gray to black.

Left: Black caviar in a wine glass.

Next in quality is the medium-sized, gray to brownish oestra, and the smaller, gray sevruga caviar. The small golden sterlet caviar is so rare that it was once reserved for Russian czars, Iranian shahs and Austrian emperors. Other popular (and much less expensive) types include lumpfish caviar (tiny, hard, black eggs, whitefish caviar (also called American Golden) with its small yellow-gold eggs and salmon or red caviar (medium-size, pale orange to deep red eggs).

Caviar is extremely perishable and must be refrigerated immediately until it's consumed. Pasteurized caviar is roe that has been partially cooked, thereby giving the eggs a slightly different texture. It is less perishable and may not require refrigeration before opening. Pressed caviar is composed of damaged or fragile eggs and can be a combination of several different roes. It's specially treated, salted, and pressed. Be sure to read the label for information on how to handle the caviar you purchase. Although a spoonful of caviar supplies the adult daily requirement of vitamin B-12, it's also high in cholesterol and salt.

The harvest and sale of black caviar have been banned in Russia since August 1, 2007. The ban extends for 10 years, but scientific research and the artificial breeding of black caviar fish are exempted.

Given its high price in the West, caviar is associated with luxury and wealth. In Russia and other Eastern European cultures, though still expensive, caviar is commonly served at holiday feasts, weddings, and other festive occasions.


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