The theology of caviar
September 13, 2000
On Thursday, August 31, 2000, Khodakaram Jalali, the director-general
of Iran's fisheries authority, the Shilat, announced that the government
plans to "privatize" some aspects of the Iranian caviar industry.
The Shilat is a state-owned and government-run statutory monopoly that
regulates all aspects of fisheries in Iran, including the sturgeon and
its cured roe that is called caviar.
Because I had briefly been a privatization lawyer-consultant and taught
privatization, naturally the Jalali announcement piqued my interest. As
a student of the legal aspects of the Caspian Sea, the notice also gripped
me because of its implications for the sturgeon, a distressed resource,
and its equally distressed habitat, the Caspian Sea, that is nowadays
a veritable cesspool.
The impetus to write this essay however comes from my love of caviar,
especially Iranian caviar, and I would make every argument for this product
to be made available at grassroots prices and in every corner of the world.
However, I also do realize that caviar is not everyone's cup of tea. Even
though some would like to say that eating caviar is an acquired taste,
I must raise the possibility that loving it may not be completely divorced
from a genetic predisposition.
"To serve caviar is to honor the guest," it is said. In the
days before the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Iranian caviar was a staple
at most of the receptions hosted by the Iranian officialdom around the
world. The guest was offered a delicacy that in quality was not replicated
anywhere else in the world. The dapper and very discerning palate of the
legendary agent James Bond, too, knew this to be the case: he would always
ask for Persian caviar. Caviar was also expensive enough that serving
it at a Persian function added a layer of extravagance to a hospitality
already renowned for its traditional generosity. My first encounter with
the caviar came about in one such setting.
One hot summer afternoon in New Delhi, in the late 1950s, I hurried
into the pantry and opened the door to the freezer looking for ice cubes,
but found instead never-before-seen cylindrical containers, each wrapped
in white paper and secured by a piece of string bearing a small silvery
seal. "What are these," I inquired of a nearby attendant. "Caviar,
for tonight's cocktail reception," he replied. When I asked if it
was eatable, he said that it was and urged me to come around later when
he would be preparing the servings for the party and taste some.
Later in the afternoon, I came back inside the house from a well fought
contest of marbles and made my way to the living room where the smartly
dressed attendants were gathered about a long table preparing the hors
d'oeuvres. Some were doling out the caviar by the spoonful into crystal
bowls and some were building caviar canapes. The fellow who had invited
me to this fare reached out for a long-necked, small-mouthed tea glass,
inverted it and applied its rim to a slice of white bread, cutting out
a round piece. He spread a little butter on it so as to cushion the slice
of cucumber that followed; he topped the whole construction with a generous
heap of caviar. I devoured the offering as fast as he could withdraw offering
hand. A moment or so later, I asked for another one and he obliged. Into
my fourth request, I was sent back out of the house to play.
My sister, who usually was the start and end of all shenanigans for
which I somehow ended up always paying, suggested that we sneak back in
so that she could try some of this stuff. We went back in and hid under
the buffet table, hidden from view by the long extensions of the table
cloth that reached the floor. She reached out and up, and hauled down
a large container, nearly three-quarters full. As we gorged on the contents,
above, a furious search began by the attendants to find the missing can.
Posses were organized and sent everywhere looking for it. There would
be hell to pay: This was an official party, the caviar was government
property, and the hostess demanded strict accounting for every expenditure.
The last image of us as five and seven-year olds was that we were crouched
under the table, mortified at the prospect of being discovered. We were
found out and scorned and I do remember getting violently ill from my
first epicurean overdose. For a long time I could not stand the sight or
smell of caviar, much less its taste. It was not until the late 1960s
and in Moscow when I reacquainted myself with this delicacy.
These days, I live in the United States, the world's hyper-power, whose
government measures its prowess by how much and for how long it can deny
its own people the pleasure and business of trade with other countries,
including the importation of caviar from Iran. The legal necessity impressed
by the "Iran sanctions," which are really "American"
in origin, has taught me much about the cross-elasticity of demand, sublimation,
and consumer behavior. Presently, I address my desire for caviar by frequenting
the local sushi bar. Here, the salmon roe fills the place of the beluga
caviar at one-seventeenth of the price, the smelt egg or the flying fish
roe substitutes for the lowly sevruga at one-seventh of the coast. And,
the American sturgeon egg, if available, is two or three times cheaper
than the osetra caviar from the Caspian. But in taste, none of these comes
even close to being Iranian caviar.
In March of this year, the U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright,
announced that the U.S. government was lifting the ban on the importation
of various Iranian food products, including caviar. The joy brought about
by this good news was tempered quickly however by the realization that
due to red-tape and other narrow-minded considerations no real change
was going to be forthcoming any time soon in the supply of Iranian caviar
to this country. The legal process of importing caviar aside, there was
no guarantee that Iranian caviar supplied to the American market would
be affordable by people of ordinary means.
The Jalali plan, as reported by the media, involves apparently the
turning over to the private sector of the function of exporting caviar.
The Shilat would still be in charge of the sturgeon catch, restocking
and generally managing the resource. It is not clear whether the processing
of the roe into exportable caviar will continue with the Shilat. Regardless,
the private sector exporters will either process the roe on their own
or buy the caviar from the Shilat and export it abroad.
In this manner, the government shifts the cost and expenses associated
with the downstream phases of the caviar trade on the Iranian private
sector. The government will save the cost of processing and packaging,
storage and transportation, marketing and advertisement, and distribution
and sale of caviar in the overseas markets. The problem is that without
a sense of what returns one could expect, no sound minded individual will
be investing her money in as risky a venture as trading in a highly perishable
commodity. Fair enough, fear not, said Mr. Jalali, the government will
be provide financing and subsidies to the private sector to get it running.
The problem is that this sort of economic breast-feeding creates an insidious
form of dependence that will be hard to shed or sever at a later date.
Would all this make a difference in the price of caviar in Iran and
abroad? In a fully privatized and competitive situation, where there is
no reasonably unsurmountable barrier to entry, the price of caviar should
decrease from its current levels set by government monopoly. But then,
nor is there a point in promoting a cut throat predatory form of competition
in this sector by having price wars between the producers. The government
may chose to provide a floor or maintained price for the trade in pre-processed
caviar, and keep vigil in order to ensure that the ultimate price paid
by the consumer is not the result of collusive conduct at wholesale and
Privatizing the export sector is not enough, though. In order to promote
the export of caviar by the licensed private sector, Iran also must have
a plan to protect its exporters from foreign and domestic bootleggers.
That is a topic reserved for another occasion. Suffice it to say that
despite gallant efforts by Iran and Russia to manage the fisheries in
the Caspian, rogue elements in all five littoral countries, but especially
in Azerbaijan, and the foreign markets often evade detection.
Bootleg is not only an international abomination but it is also a
domestic scourge in any of the five littoral countries of the Caspian Sea.
In Iran, the Shilat competes with the "parallel market," a euphemism
made current in international development parlance by the likes of the
World Bank, that also promoted the term "informal economy,"
both of which mean "black market," or as the Iranians call it
"bazar-i siyah." The term "mahi qachaq," meaning "bootleg
fish" is a term often used by the Iranians in the ordinary course
of business when seeking sturgeon flesh or white fish hors de saison,
times of shortage, or at prices less than what the Shilat charges.
Many luxury items have lost their status to unsound economic practices,
technological advancement, or more vigorous marketing ploys. The Persian
Gulf pearl lost out to the Japanese cultured pearl in the 1950s. The Iranian
pistachio lost its market in the United States due to trade restrictions
and a burgeoning pistachio industry in California that produces a nut
far more superior in quality than any tree in Iran can sprout. Equally,
the California wines, including the sparkling ones, compete favorably
in price and taste against the snobbish imports from France. There may
come a day when the Iranian caviar too will be just a faint memory on
one's taste bud, not only in the United States, but also in Europe and
elsewhere. A cursory surf on the internet directed will reveal a whole
world of e-trade in caviar; it is a product well on its way to becoming
truly a globalized product, capable of fast delivery by overnight means.
That will dispense with the relevance or the habit of distinguishing caviar
on the basis of its place of geographical origin.
The Caspian caviar is still king, but the pollution of the Caspian will
become a greater impediment to its sale as soon as a comparatively decent
caviar can be harvested in cleaner and safer surroundings. That day is
fast approaching, if not already here. On September 1, 2000, for example,
Stolt Sea Farm of California, the producers of Sterling Caviar, opened
a store front on the internet. It is claimed that its various products
such as the Sterling Classsic, Royal Black, Imperial, and Premium caviars
compare in quality to the Caspian caviar.
The Iranian government's measures announced by Mr. Jalali might have
some impact on the price, quality and quantity of the Iranian caviar available
overseas. But, after it is all said and done, the survival of the Iranian
caviar internationally may have to rest entirely on the strength of the
Iranian domestic market. Additionally, when there is a domestic demand
for the product and it requires that the supply be affordable, safe, and
steady, the free market will adapt and respond. That will produce a microeconomically
efficient product, with the necessary comparative advantage to compete
How does one strengthen the domestic market for caviar? By encouraging
consumption through affordable supplies and a massive educational campaign
promoting the consumption of caviar. To encourage consumption, first,
the Shilat can lower the price of the caviar to a level below the bootlegger's
acceptable or marginal revenue. The problem with this is that the bootlegger
will begin to seek greater volumes of caviar and this then invariably
will result in the overexploitation of the sturgeon and other fish as
well, because in the process of fishing for sturgeon one also ends up
with all sort of other fish in one's net.
Second, the government can privatize the fisheries sector altogether
and let multiple enterprises enter the market. The first step in this
direction will be to privatize the domestic catch and production of caviar.
The problem here is the fear that competition and the market economy will
unleash the dogs of lucre and profiteering to the point of exhausting
the sturgeon stock. Therefore, it is essential that the government retain
an interest and presence in this sector as one who regulates the time,
place, amount, and manner of catch and manages the restocking and policing
of the sea.
In addition, every effort must be made to knock this product off its
pedestal and into mass consumption. It is a luxury item, whose high price
is less a result of economic principles at work than it is a reflection
of the bombast and elitism that has evolved around the product because
of generations of social selection. It does not need to be so and the
government should make every effort to make caviar a redeeming part of
the national diet. In that regard, the future of the sturgeon and caviar
in Iran is also a matter of public education. A collateral benefit from
increased consumption of caviar in Iran would make the public conscious
and protective of the sturgeon, fisheries in general, the Caspian's ecology,
and the environment. From that will spring the impetus for government
action, from political necessity if not from simple enlightenment, to
preserve and protect this precious resource. This will then argue for
and induce the government to seek a more aggressive approach to international
management of this resource by the Caspian countries.
What does all this mean for the lowly sturgeon? Here, one is reminded
of some years ago when the question on the final exam in international
law at Harvard Law School asked the students to discuss the legal, political,
economic, and social ramifications of a newly concluded Anglo-American
fisheries agreement from the perspective of the United States and Great
Britain. Stumped by the question, a rogue student began his answer by
"I know neither about the American nor the British perspective, but
let me tell you about it from the point of view of the fish."
It is not easy being a fish in the Caspian; it is even more difficult
to be the highly coveted sturgeon. According to one analyst, Siamak Namazi,
Russia and Iran annually release into the Caspian some 63 and 15 million
young sturgeon, respectively, and yet the sturgeon population is in decline.
Still, in the period between 1990 and 1995 the sturgeon population declined
from 200 million sturgeon to about 55 million. Many political, economic,
and social factors contribute to this disaster. Improper netting alone,
according to Mr. Namazi, kills off 1 million young sturgeon every year.
See, S. Namazi, "The Caspian's Environmental Woes," in The Caspian
Region at a Crossroad (St. Martin's Press, 2000). This year Iran released
some 25 million young sturgeon with the hope of eventually turning the
tide in favor of these ancient denizens of the Caspian Sea.
Today, however, according to another analyst, Bijan Khajehpour, the
Caspian's overall sturgeon catch has dwindled to a measly 1,000 tons.
B. Khajehpour, "Survey of Iran's Economic Interests in the Caspian,"
in The Caspian Region at a Crossroad (St. Martin's Press, 2000). According
to Mr. Khajehpour, by 1996, Iran's caviar production hit an all time low
of 195 tons. Today, Iran's caviar production is at about 100 tons; eighty
percent of that is exported and fetches about $680 per kilo, for about
$68 million in annual revenue to the economy.
With all of its epicurean connection to Iran, at least in the mind
of the connoisseurs, the Caspian sturgeon and caviar has not been able
to find a home in Iran's Islamic culture. To begin with, the term "caviar,"
as used in Iran and most other countries today, is from the word "havyar"
which in Turkic means "egg." The term "uzunbrun" that
Iranians use to refer to the sturgeon fish is also of Turkic origin. Caviar,
as we know and consume today, was a Russian concoction dating back to
the thirteenth century.They call it ikra, but they also use the designations
beluga, osetra and sevruga when distinguishing among the large, medium
and small grades of the sturgeon egg. The egg of the tiny sterlet is the
most prized of all the caviars and is so rare and therefore exorbitant
that one may not come across it in this life time, not certainly on this
writer's budget and at his local sushi bar.
There is however a Persian etymological connection with caviar but it
obtains only through the term "oshpol," which in the limited
dialects of Lahijan (ashbol) and Rasht (ashbal) in northern Iran refers
generally to fish eggs. Because of the occurrence of the sound "p,"
it is likely that the term is of Persian origin and survived the Arabification
of the Persian language.
In Iran, the sturgeon fish is called "mahi-ye khaviar," meaning
"caviar fish." This usage however is of recent origin and gained
prominence only during the Pahlavi era (1921-1979), especially in the
1960s and 1970s when the government sought a more appealing name for a
product that it sought to promote. Before then, most Iranians knew the
sturgeon fish as "sag mahi," meaning "dog fish." From
a naturalist's point of view, that name was quite correct, as the sturgeon
is a kind of dogfish, small sharklike fish.
Aesthetically speaking, with its long snout and toothless mouth, the
sturgeon is indeed an ugly fish. The Iranian "sag mahi" was
also theologically cursed for two reasons. First, as far as it was a fish,
it was forbidden to the believers because it had no scales and as such
it was a prohibited food. Second, its name related it to a dog, which
is considered in Islam an impure animal and forbidden to touch, much less
to eat. Just has been only recently that, for example, the Iranian police
has managed to come around in using dogs in the fight against narcotraffic.
The Koran says nothing about the sturgeon or caviar. Its only teaching
about fish or seafood seems to occur in the verse ninety-seven of the
fifth sura, the al-Maidah, that was revealed to the Prophet after the
Hijra. It says: "The game of the sea and the eating thereof have been
made lawful for you as a provision for you and the travelers; but forbidden
to you is the game of the land as long as you are in the state of pilgrimage."
The truth is that the verse was revealed in the context of pilgrimage
and it permits eating seafood only in the context of pilgrimage, possibly
as a substitute for land game that it prohibited during pilgrimage. On
the other hand, to the extent that it could be made to relate to seafood,
there is the verse six of the same sura which says "this day all
good things have been made lawful for you. And the food of the People
of the Book is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them."
The problem is that Judaism too prohibits scaleless fish and crustacean.
Perhaps under this sura a Moslem could eat sturgeon just because it may
be permitted by Christianity.
The ambiguity regarding fish was the subject of a series of theological
debates in the early days of Islam, but much of that debate was concerned
with whether it was permitted to eat a fish that had died on its own.
In the second sura, al-Baqarah, verse one hundred of seventy-four, the
Holy Koran says that God "has made unlawful to you only that which
dies of itself." So, the son of Omar II stated that a fish that dies
on its own is not allowed to the believer. But when the above verse ninety-seven
of the fifth sura was brought before him, he changed his mind and said
that such fish may be consumed by a believer. This did not however prevent
the theologians from further debating the issue of whether it made a difference
if the fish had died of extreme heat or cold.
The discussion that most prejudiced the faith of "sag mahi"
or dogfish was in all likelihood the one that raged over the status of
khinzir (swine), and khinzir al-ma (water swine), meaning "hippopotamus."
Just because the hippo bore the nominal reference to swine, some like
Abu Hanifah argued that it should be forbidden to the believer just like
swine itself. By analogy, if dog was impure and forbidden as food, as
it was, what chance could the dogfish have?
Yet, early Islam was flexible in its edicts involving the provisions
for survival. For example, the Maliki and Shafi'i schools were totally
indifferent about whether a fish that had died on its own could be eaten
by a believer. The Shafi'i school even allowed the eating of water swine,
the hippo. That would make these schools particularly attractive to the
ichthyophagous inhabitants of the coastal territories of the Persian Gulf
or the Caspian Sea. It is likely that before the golden age of Shi'ism
in northern Iran, the consumption of the sturgeon was permitted to the
believers and later on became forbidden perhaps on the authority of Imam
Jafar Sadiq and Imam Musa Kazem, to whom is attributed the authorship
of a book setting forth all things that are forbidden (haram) and permitted
The theological disposition against the sturgeon and a general dislike
for it as a source of food help explain why in the 1927 Russo-Iranian
fisheries treaty Iran did not think twice against giving up wholesale
to the Russians the right to receive any and all of the forbidden (haram)
fish caught in the Caspian Sea, which included the sturgeon and other
During the rule of Mohammadreza Shah Pahlavi, Iran regained its sovereignty
over the fisheries in the southern Caspian and the promotion and consumption
of sturgeon and caviar was free, if not totally religiously sanctioned.
Yet the "rice-and-fish" part of the economy had its problems.
A quip about that period has it so: When the street weary husband arrived
home and announced that he could find rice for the traditional new year's
green rice-and-fish repast, the frustrated wife picked up the moribund
fish from the kitchen counter and flung it back into the fishpond. As
the couple went about cursing the country's lousy economy, the rejuvenated
fish let out a cry of joy in the praise of the shah.
The Iranian love affair with the caviar came to an abrupt end when at
the outset of the 1979 Iranian revolution the government banned it as
haram. When it was pointed out that the caviar was a source of foreign
exchange, the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini's office issued
a decree declaring the sturgeon to be halal and allowing once again the
production of caviar. Could it be that the Imam's liberating decree caused
a rush on the sturgeon stock, as more and more believers now saw no religious
impediment to its consumption? And did that rush contribute to the declining
numbers of the sturgeon?
The Jalali announcement is a good first step forward toward the proper
commercialization of this resource. Or is this all once again a red herring
thrown into the kettle by the Iranian government in order to give the
appearance of reform while the demise of the sturgeon goes unabated. Only
when the government gives up its status as a monopolistic fish trader
and becomes simply an honest trustee of the public interest, then the
sturgeon and caviar will thrive again.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.