ENJOYING caviar with a mother of pearl spoon is almost a showcase of status and wealth in China.
Together with truffle and premium steak, it’s among the staples of a luxury lifestyle.
But now, these Western foods are being produced in China and they symbolize quality and sustainability.
Some of the price tags have even beaten the expensive imported foods, while some have made the luxury food cheaper to reach more people.
Otto Goh, executive chef at Kerry Hotel, Pudong, has created a new menu for The MEAT grill featuring caviar and steaks that are all grown and produced in China.
In the past, these items were often perceived as imported luxury goods.
“I favor these local Chinese ingredients because not only is the quality fantastic, it’s also safe and sustainable,” said the Malaysian chef who has a passion for ingredients and vast knowledge of Chinese-sourced ingredients.
The various businesses have been developing for several decades, and recently the results have started to show in the market.
China’s vast transportation network has also helped boost these industries.
The cold chain and logistics guarantee the freshest foods can be delivered promptly every day.
Caviar is the processed and salted fish roe using the eggs of sturgeon, a prehistoric fish dating back to the Triassic period more than 2 million years ago. The “living fossil” can live to 100 years and weigh up to a ton.
It takes seven to 25 years for a sturgeon to mature and produce eggs. The fish roe itself has no taste and needs to be cured with salt.
Russian fishermen started to fish sturgeon along River Volga by the Caspian Sea in the 11th century, but the food didn’t become popular in Europe until the 19th century.
Traditionally, the best caviar comes from the Caspian, bordered by Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. It’s the optimal habitat of sturgeon and the majority of the wild catch came from here.
But overfishing, habitat loss and pollution has made most of the 27 species of sturgeons highly threatened or vulnerable to extinction. In 2011, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned the wild caviar trade to protect the sturgeon.
To supply the world’s growing taste for caviar and saving the wild sturgeons, caviar aquaculture has been developed in many countries as a sustainable solution over the past decades.
China is amongst the largest sturgeon farming regions in the world. Breeding farms in Sichuan, Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces have been operating for more than two decades, where the 100 percent freshwater habitats in unpolluted areas are similar to the sturgeon’s natural habitat.
W3 Caviar, a company that supplies Chinese caviar to hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, says no chemicals or growth hormones are used.
Regular and premium caviar is produced in China, including the Baerii caviar from Siberian sturgeon, the Amur Oscietra from Amur sturgeon, Royal Oscietra from the Russian sturgeon, Amur beluga, royal beluga and the rare golden caviar selected from albino sturgeon.
Yunnan Amur Caviar is one of the largest sturgeon breeders in China which produces sturgeon caviar, hybrid sturgeon caviar, Siberian sturgeon caviar and kaluga caviar. Its online shop retails the fish roes priced from 405-1800 yuan (US$62-277) for 30 grams.
Large scale caviar farming has made the world’s most expensive food accessible not just for the rich and wealthy.
“In the past, I didn’t quite agree with the use of caviar because it didn’t feel right, but now I encourage the use of farmed products because I want to help the industry, if we are not buying, the vicious circle might go back to catching the wild sturgeon and they will eventually die out,” said Goh.
His caviar and crispy duck (298 yuan) is the classic Peking roast duck with a twist. He layers a soft steamed bun, cucumber and a piece of crispy roast duck with caviar garnished on top. It comes in six servings, making a caviar dish affordable for more people.
The quality is now quite close to the wild caviar as the craftsmanship is improving year by year, said the chef, especially in the past three years when companies have started to make a profit. He uses W3 Caviar.
“The price is getting cheaper and cheaper, and there is more than one company doing it and the quality is all good,” he said. “It’s definitely getting better because the fish needs time to grow.
“I think Chinese caviar will be world famous.”
The signature imperial caviar and king crab refreshed with crustacean jelly, cauliflower cream dish (358 yuan) from the two Michelin-starred restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is also using the Chinese caviar which has shown consistent quality.
China is the world’s second largest beef importing country, bringing in beef from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and recently the United States.
The Chinese’s appetite for premium steaks was cultivated after Australian beef became a prominent player in the market.
The public is accustomed to thinking steaks made of Australian Wagyu beef are good quality and expensive.
But Goh has discovered a Chinese beef that can rival with the Japanese Kobe beef, and it’s much more expensive than Australian Wagyu.
“One time a friend who’s very rich invited me to dinner at his home and said he bought a piece of steak in Jilin that costed over 1,000 yuan. I didn’t believe him at first and the beef didn’t look like it’s from a domestic breed, so I started to do research online.”
Tianyigangshan black is a premium domestic cattle breed in the Changbai Mountain region in Jilin Province that is filling the gap for the lack of high-grade domestic beef.
Jilin Black Cattle Industry Co Ltd was founded in 2003 with the goal of developing China’s high-grade beef.
It’s identified by China’s Ministry of Agriculture as a standardized demonstration farm and the research, development and experiment base for key technology for a quality beef industry in state scientific and technical support projects.
The breed is a hybrid of introduced foreign cattle and Chinese yellow cattle, using F1 generation of mother cattle to reproduce F2 generation of embryonic bovine. The company works with local farmers to ensure the calves are taken good care of when they are born.
The cattle drink mineral water from the Heavenly Pool of Changbai Mountain and feed on fine fodder of corn, barley and bean cakes. The colder climate is also ideal for raising cattle.
According to the company, the Tianyigangshan black cattle live a good life — eating good feed, sleeping on soft beds, listening to music and even getting massages in an air-conditioned environment.
Energy-saving and environmental protection is also a key in developing China’s own high-grade beef.
The company introduced an automatic processing line of biomass pellet fuel in 2010, which is clean and pollution free.
The beef is graded on its color and fat distribution. Tianyigangshan black cattle can reach a marbling score of 10 to 12, the meat is very soft and the flavor is so rich that not everyone can finish a whole steak.
Yunnan is a key area for producing foods of Western origin domestically.
The unique climate and geographical conditions can accommodate the farming of many products — from coffee to truffles. The land of mushroom grows one of the world’s most expensive funguses: truffles. Wild truffles are mainly found in Sichuan and Yunnan. The Chinese black truffle is related to the French black truffle.
Because the wild truffles have become increasingly rare due to over-harvesting, many plantations have been established to supply the high demand.
Yunnan is famous for its Pu’er tea, but the province also supplies coffee for China and abroad, mostly Arabica.