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Waiter, is this caviar Beluga, Sevruga or Vietnamese?

In the exotic dining stakes, Vietnamese cuisine has built a reputation based on its culinary history, the fusion of tropical herbs and European, particular French, influences – like banh mi (baguette) and pho (pot au feu). Now though the Southeast Asian state is succeeding with even less-traditional fare. Locally produced caviar is hitting the shelves and it's becoming an unlikely success for the communists in Hanoi.

Four species of sturgeon are being spawned in commercial numbers in the Vietnamese highlands where cooler waters and a more temperate climate have enabled the country to diversify its agricultural products from industries normally associated with a tropical climate.

" [As] wealthy Asians look to universal badges of wealth, caviar becomes attractive and sought after as part of a refined dining experience."
Darren Gall, Creative Director, Sorse Hospitality Services

It's a slow going business. Siberian sturgeon – by far the most popular breed – beluga, Russian sturgeon and sterlet were initially introduced amid heavy investment in aquaculture in the central and northern highlands 11 years ago.

Chinese sturgeon followed but its appeal is limited. Farmers complain its taste is poor and it takes too long to mature when compared with other species that take 10 years to fully develop.

“Given we are talking delivering of a luxury or gourmet food item to the market in the region at a reasonable price I think the potential is enormous,” Darren Gall, Creative Director of Sorse Hospitality Services, which services restaurants from across Indochina, said.

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“As the Far Eastern and South East Asian economies continue to rise and wealthy Asians look to the universal badges of wealth, caviar becomes attractive and sought after as part of a refined dining experience.”

OVERFISHING

Overfishing has ruined sturgeon stock, particularly in the world's largest saltwater lake, the Caspian Sea. This led to a massive global shortage of sturgeon roe with production of wild caviar falling from 3,000 tonnes a year in the 1970s to virtually nothing.

With traditional suppliers Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran unable to meet demand, Viet Nam is looking to expand its rapidly evolving aquaculture industry.

“Asians have a long and significant history in rare, seafood delicacies and there is no reason why Caviar would not become a part of refined local tastes,” Gall added.

Viet Nam also has a well-earned reputation for developing and harnessing products like catfish and coffee beans for international markets, often upsetting traditional suppliers.

Brazil blames Viet Nam for bullying its way onto the coffee market resulting in gluts and low prices while in the United States the fishing industry has stifled imports of Vietnamese catfish, forcing producers to re-label their products as ‘Tra’ or ‘Basa’, following years of argument.

“Vietnamese products are often of a terrific quality and that's what bothers, competing suppliers,” one Western trader who declined to be named said. “Particularly those who have long held a monopoly on their markets.

“However, it's different with sturgeon roe and caviar. The world has run out of caviar and Viet Nam – and there's a few other countries too ... have stepped in and are filling a vacuum. It's been a clever investment and they stand to do well.”

BOOM

European and Middle East countries alongside the United States, Russia, Israel, Hong Kong and Uruguay have also entered the market and established their own farms with demand booming, especially after 2008 when a global ban on sturgeon fishing was imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Industry analysts said Viet Nam had already become a major player by getting in early and, although industry figures are far from exact, Hanoi counts its caviar industry among the top 10 in the world with plans to produce a third of the world's harvest – estimated by the World Sturgeon Conservation Society at between 250 and 400 tonnes a year.

The entire Vietnamese industry produces perhaps 20 tonnes a year.

“I believe consideration to food miles and carbon footprints needs to also be given due consideration when you consider where most of the world's caviar is coming from,” Gall said.

“Caviar in Viet Nam is closer to markets in Asia and Australia and critically reduces the food miles to transport it to market.”

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The Viet Nam Sturgeon Group is gaining a reputation for its Osetra Malossol black caviar produced near an altitude of 1,500 metres above sea level with science enabling the breeding of sturgeon in warmer waters, at temperatures of 16 to 18 degrees Celsius.

“Whilst ultra-cool water is best the caviar from Viet Nam certainly is pretty good and shows a lot of potential as a young industry,” Gall added.

Phnom Penh-based Restauranteur Wendy Lucas also backed Vietnamese caviar, pointing out its freshness and proximity to markets weighed heavily in its favor.

“The Vietnamese have valued caviar for a long time and jumped in the early 2000's to start the breeding programs and producing good quotas of fish and roe,” the native Australian with more than a decade in Indochina said.

“Obviously, this was initially for the local market, which is now exported at more affordable prices to world markets.”

It's a process that is also lending an air of legitimacy to attempts within Indochina to improve product image and branding. Producers here are often dismissed unfairly as incapable of producing clean, quality food stuffs but some are bucking that unwanted trend.

Among them, Lucas said, was Kampot pepper, which has become the first Cambodian product to be registered with a protected label in Europe, and Ibis Rice, a high-quality eco-friendly rice.

“The survival and an increase in the growth of the species means sturgeon can be saved from extinction and importantly the more affordable caviar can grace our tables,” she added.

“And it tastes absolutely delicious and marries well with many different ingredients, or simply take it by the teaspoonful.”

Luke Hunt is a freelance journalist and Asian correspondent

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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