Thai caviar? Farm produces delicacy in a tropical climate

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At his upscale Bangkok restaurant, star chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn pours black caviar onto a plate, adding the newly affordable Thai delicacy to his reinterpreted traditional family recipes.

Luxury food, best associated with cold northern nations, is bursting onto the food scene in the Southeast Asian country, with the 37-year-old celebrity cook able to economically serve eggs thanks to an innovative farm outside the capital.

Using high-tech harvesting methods, a Thai-Russian partnership offers a more ethical and affordable product, sparing the endangered fish that provide the delicacy from their usual fate of death.

“The price is … more affordable, I would say, compared to the ones we imported,” Ton explained, as he sprinkled caviar on a Thai “Lhon Pu” dip at his Lahnyai Nusara restaurant.

The use of caviar also helps challenge perceptions that Thai cuisine should always be spicy with strong flavors, he added.

“I think it opened a lot of doors for a lot of chefs to use it as well,” he said.

About 200 kilometers away, in the famous resort town of Hua Hin, it’s time to harvest the ‘black gold’ at Thai Sturgeon Farm, which supplies local distributor Caviar House.

Hundreds of giant fish swim in tanks kept at a balmy 21 degrees Celsius – a world away from the cold Caspian Sea where the species live in the wild.

“No one else has this kind of farm in a tropical climate,” said farm co-owner Alexey Tyutin.

Thai Sturgeon Farm co-owner Alexey Tyutin (left) and fellow investor and restaurateur Bill Marinelli watch fishing for sturgeon at an aquarium at the facility in Thailand’s coastal province of Hua Hin. | AFP-JIJI

The fish – considered living dinosaurs – can survive for up to 100 years and are typically up to four meters long.

Traditionally, caviar producers kill the females to extract the eggs, but the Tyutin farm “processes” the sturgeon.

Using fish for as long as possible helps make the business sustainable and profitable, the 55-year-old said.

At harvest, the fish are moved to the “winter chamber”, initially set at 6 degrees Celsius and increased to 15, before their eggs are extracted.

“Let’s say if the fish weighs 25 kilograms, we usually expect around 2.6 to 2.7 kilograms of caviar,” Tyutin said, adding that the farm estimates it could produce up to 2 tonnes this year.

Raising sturgeons in a simulated environment requires large amounts of energy – despite the use of solar panels, the monthly electricity bill is nearly $9,000.

“We cool the water because the water temperature outside is 31 degrees. These fish cannot tolerate it and they will die immediately,” Tyutin said.

But Thailand’s tropical climate has given the company a competitive advantage as the higher water temperature helps sturgeons mature at 6 years compared to 11 in Russia.

While Caviar House only sells domestically at the moment – ​​with a box of treats selling for between $230 and $832 – they hope to expand into exports in the future.

Recent European Union sanctions against Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine have targeted caviar, but the restrictions are largely symbolic as Russia is only a small exporter.

Instead, competition comes from China, which has become the market giant, producing 84% of the world’s sturgeon, according to a European Commission report.

The industry has suffered during the pandemic with high-end restaurants, airlines and cruise ships battered by travel restrictions, although some fine-dining establishments have adapted by cutting portions and incorporating them into dishes to eat. carry.

But the international caviar market is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of 7% between 2020 and 2025, according to a 2021 report by Technavio Research.

France, Germany, China, Spain, the United States, Japan and Russia are important markets, but demand is growing rapidly in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

Well-heeled Thai foodies and chefs recognize the benefits of caviar, which is rich in vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.

“It only took a few days for Thai chefs to start ordering after we sent them samples to try,” said farm co-owner Noppadon Khamsai, 43. “They say it’s a good product and it’s important that it’s made in Thailand, and they’re really proud to introduce this Thai product.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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