Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Caviar appears to have arisen in Russia sometime around 1200 CE as a more palatable alternative to the traditional preserved sturgeon ovaries. Though the term caviar is now widely used to describe any sort of lightly salted loose fish eggs, for many centuries it referred only to loose sturgeon eggs. The most sought-after caviar still comes from a handful of sturgeon species mainly harvested by Russian and Iranian fishermen as the fish enter the rivers that drain into the Caspian Sea.

Just 150 years ago, sturgeon were common in many large rivers the northern hemisphere, and caviar was plentiful enough in Russia that Elena Molokhovets suggested using it to clarify bouillons and to decorate sauerkraut “so that it appears as if it were strewn with poppy seeds”! But overfishing, dams and hydroelectric plants, and industrial pollution have since put many sturgeon species in danger of extinction. Around 1900, sturgeon roe became rare, expensive, and therefore a sought-after luxury—and so even more expensive. The trend has continued, with Caspian sturgeon populations plummeting and U.N. organizations considering an export ban on caviar from the region. In recent decades, caviar production has been growing further east, along the Amur River in both Russia and China, and on sturgeon farms in the United States and elsewhere.