When you eat caviar, are you eating a living creature? The lightly salted, unfertilized eggs of a fish from the Sturgeon family, also known as caviar, are a delicacy around the world.
Are caviar fish eggs? Yes, caviar are fish eggs. Caviar is made of salted and cured sturgeon fish eggs which are harvested in salt water and then processed using traditional methods.
If you are worried you may have accidentally eaten a living animal by indulging in caviar, worry not! Fertilized eggs are simply not used in the making of caviar.
Why caviar is not alive
But are caviar eggs alive? Caviar eggs are not alive. Caviar is only made from unfertilized fish eggs. The eggs themselves are harvested from the fish prior to being fertilized, and have no chance of ever developing into a baby fish.
Well, that’s a relief. But what’s to stop a less reputable operation from using eggs that have been fertilized? Ethical questions aside, there are quite a few reasons why caviar will not contain living, fertilized eggs.
The term caviar specifically refers to unfertilized fish eggs. Female fish build up a mass of eggs in their ovaries and travel to breeding grounds to release them for fertilization by male fish. These fish are intercepted prior to laying their eggs, and the eggs are harvested from the fish directly.
There is no chance for these eggs to become fertilized as they were not given the opportunity to be visited by a male fish. Without the fertilization of the egg, there is no biological process occurring that can lead to the development of baby fish.
The eggs themselves contain the nutrients needed for the development of a baby fish. If an egg were to be fertilized, the resulting embryo would consume the nutrients in the eggs while developing. This process renders the eggs useless for caviar for several reasons.
Fertilized fish eggs, with the potential for life, do not have a market, and are not harvested. The “shell” of the fish egg begins to deteriorate once released into the water, even before it has been fertilized. This makes it easier for sperm to penetrate and successfully develop into a larva. Caviar made from these eggs would be mushy and not up to the standards of caviar makers. Firmness of the eggs is one of the primary qualities caviar is judged upon.
If you were to leave an unfertilized fish egg alone, it would decay in a matter of days. Caviar makers claim that letting the eggs release from the fish into the water for any amount of time, renders their product inferior. These eggs do not have the opportunity to become living fish.
Logistical challenges of living egg collection
While living (fertilized) eggs are not desirable to anyone for consumption, it is logistics that make it almost impossible to collect fertilized fish eggs. When a fish goes to it’s breeding ground, and releases its eggs, it becomes an exercise in futility to collect them. Fish eggs are small, and spread out wherever the current of the water takes them. Since fish in the sturgeon family release their eggs in rivers, the current can take them quite far.
Even if you were able to locate the fish eggs at this stage, the collection, and necessary cleaning, would prove difficult. Fish eggs do not develop a “shell” like that of chicken eggs, and are much easier to damage. The exterior of a fish egg is only a membrane layer that provides minimal protection for the nutrients of the egg. Fish compensate for this minimal protection by laying hundreds to thousands of eggs at a time.
Locating, collecting, and cleaning these eggs for consumption, would be a very time consuming and labor intensive process. The yield from an operation that used this technique would likely not be enough to sustain itself. This process would also result in an inferior product.
If a caviar maker were able to devise a system that allowed them to harvest these fertilized eggs with no complications, they would not be able to sell them to a connoisseur. While someone who has never tried caviar before might be fooled, the moment the caviar is evaluated by someone with knowledge of what makes a good caviar, they would be laughed out of business.
Inferiority of living fish eggs in caviar
So, let’s pretend that a caviar maker figured out the logistics of harvesting fish eggs for caviar after they’ve been released into the water and fertilized. As mentioned, fertilized fish eggs undergo developmental processes that render the egg undesirable for caviar.
Caviar is evaluated on texture, taste, and maturity. These desirable traits are compromised the longer the egg is outside of the egg-bearing fish, and go away almost entirely once the egg has been fertilized. If you were able to collect a fertilized fish egg prior to it’s larval stage, the taste and texture would not be fit for caviar.
Caviar is held to a high-quality standard, and if the maker does not see the correct level of texture, or firmness in their harvest, they will not sell it as caviar. Those who eat caviar know the signature “pop” each egg makes when you bite into the membrane. Living eggs become mushy as the outer membrane breaks down, resulting in inferior eggs. Some even go so far as to say that they are completely inedible at this point, even when not being considered for use in caviar.
Maturity is the other factor considered when attempting to make a high-quality caviar. The eggs reaching their peak maturity and being harvested prior to release, is crucial to the overall texture and flavor. Makers and caviar enthusiasts would go a step further and argue that these qualities go out the window the moment the eggs touch water, prior to any fertilization efforts.
The possibility of living caviar
Caviar is a delicacy. It is held to stringent quality control measures and has to pass the taste and texture tests mentioned. Due to the fact that living eggs would not obtain the seal of approval from the maker, it is more than safe to say that caviar as we know it is never, and has never, been alive. If a dishonest seller decided to sell living eggs as caviar, it would be immediately recognizable as a fraudulent product.