Considered to be a 'luxury product', caviar owes its exclusive reputation to the fact that it is difficult to obtain sturgeon roe. And yet, there are plenty of alternatives to classical caviar. These often consist of quite different foods which offer us an opportunity to familiarise with new flavours and use some interesting new ingredients in our recipes.
After all, no matter how exclusive, nothing could be more obvious than serving beluga roe on toast, but who would ever expect to taste snail caviar? Here is a list of caviar substitutes to impress your guests.
Couscous "faux caviar"
A very affordable alternative to caviar, original and tasty, often to be seen on finger food menus. It is known as 'faux caviar'. It is obtained by preparing couscous in a way that it still has plenty of bite to it, before being flavoured with a generous amount of butter and, as a second step, with sepia ink. If sufficient care is taken when adding the latter ingredient and mixing with a fork, the result looks like shiny black pearls (they can be made to look even shinier with the addition of some olive oil before serving).
So-called "soy pearls" are based on the same principle. These are tiny select soy spheres which are boiled and generally sold in jars preserved in oil, or aromatised with spices, yuzu or wasabi. Of course their flavour is a far cry from that of authentic caviar and rather tasteless besides, but the "pearls" lend themselves perfectly to being used as edible garnishes. Another caviar substitute that some refer to as soy pearls as well is made from a thin shell of algae which encloses soy sauce. These beads detonate flavour when you bite into them.
This is in fact one of the most bizarre examples of 'alternative caviar'. Completely different from sturgeon, its flavour is earthy and reminiscent of mushrooms; it is obtained by allowing snails to mate in highly controlled environments and the resulting eggs are subjected to a meticulous selection. So much so that, at the end of the day, their cost is practically on a par with that of traditional caviar: here we are talking roughly about 1800 Euros per kilo. However, there are some varieties that are sold in little 50 gram jars (about a couple of spoonfuls) at 100-120 Euros (2000-2400 Euros per kilo). Besides, snail caviar targets a very up-market niche of enthusiasts who have appreciated this product ever since it was first launched in the early '80's.
A higher value is attributed to the caviar obtained from the vendace (coregonus albula), a freshwater fish particularly appreciated in North European countries. This delicacy is technically known as kalix löjrom, and like traditional caviar, it is considered roe (mature, unfertilised eggs). The European Union has granted it Protected Geographical Status in recognition of its uniqueness. Vendace caviar goes for around $425 per kilogram.
Herring caviar has a most original flavour that is briny and sweet. It is widely consumed in the Baltic countries and in Spain. It is usually presented in oil and accompanied with lemon to enhance its characteristics, which include a pronounced crunchiness. Other forms of preparation include smoking the roe, or dying it with natural squid ink to give it the more exclusive black colour of authentic sturgeon caviar. This roe is also high in healthy omega-3 acids.
There are of course other alternatives to caviar which bear a greater resemblance to the original. A true connoisseur will have no problem distinguishing them but they are not necessarily intended to be fobbed off as authentic sturgeon roe. They are merely to be considered as 'variations on the theme' endowed with their own peculiar organoleptic properties. The most affordable and widely consumed example is that of lumpfish roe, which may be either red or black, and rich in omega-3. It is less salty than the original caviar and, for this reason, is used in various recipes along with other ingredients rather than being served alone.
Soft roe, a pronounced flavour and a rich fattiness are the typical characteristics of salmon caviar, possibly the best known alternative to that of sturgeon. Affordably priced, its colour can vary from pink to bright red, which gives it its other common name 'red caviar'. It is widely used in Russian and Japanese cuisine, in which it is referred to as ikura. In Japan, ikura is often marinated in soy sauce or sake, while Russians pair it with buttered bread or a savoury pancake called blini. It is also widely used as a garnish.
Whichever alternative caviar you intend to taste, we advise you to do it in the most traditional and simple way possible. Place one spoonful of the product on freshly toasted and buttered bread. Then, choose the right wine to accompany it: nothing but Champagne, Prosecco or a quality vodka.