Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

The only thing a little fishy about caviar is its delectable taste

Despite its history in the region, high-end caviar is not widely endeared to the Middle Eastern palate.

Yesterday, I cracked open a lobster’s tail to find a column of unfertilised roe, also known as coral, in two symmetrical sacs the colour of cherry sweets – and I ate them. Picture a live lobster with 50 ripe blackberries clinging to its underside, and you’ll get why an egg-bearing lobster is also known as “berried”.

Less fruitfully buried is the cred of a fisherman who harvests a visibly pregnant lobster and doesn’t throw her back into the sea. If you think lobster is overpriced or don’t believe that eggs are overcharged with the potentiality of new life, consider these odds: out of the 50,000 eggs a brooding lobster carries around for a year, two might thrive.

Roe usually refers to the ripe mass of a sea creature’s eggs, but it is also a blanket term for its edible reproductive organs (such as sea urchin or uni), and the term isn’t limited to females; it can refer to the milt, or white roe of the male. We had fish for lunch eight days a week when I was a kid, and my dad used to present me with the occasional egg sac from a bedh (longtail silver-biddy) or jesh (orange-spotted trevally). These eggs were tiny, hardly perceptible, with the texture of firmly compacted wet sand, but still savoury and rich, as roe tends to be.

Despite its history in the region, high-end caviar is not widely eaten in the Middle East. Even before the Persian sturgeon had been driven to the edge of extinction by the European and American caviar markets, Iranian cookbooks were not likely to contain recipes for domestic sturgeon or its eggs. Shiite jurisprudence in post-revolutionary Iran determined that sturgeon was haram, but its caviar was also a huge source of revenue. Dealing in forbidden items is tantamount to consuming them, and eventually the religious laws were ­re-evaluated.

Algebra, surgery, astronomy: Arabs have made enriching discoveries, but when there’s room for improvement, Italy is no slouch – just look at coffee (with all due respect to my people). And in the case of bottarga (butarikh) – dried sacs of grey mullet roe (or, in a pinch, tuna roe), Italian culinary finesse and Sardinia’s commercial embrace of bottarga production is to thank for the sustained interest in its consumption.

Before I reintroduced myself to bottarga recently through a Florida-based producer, my exposure to it had been limited to special occasions in the Arab world, where bottarga is served on a plate in thin, overlapping slices, topped with raw garlic, and doused in olive oil. It’s a potent encounter of salt, sea and bravado, and perhaps not the best entry-level course for the uninitiated.

Bottarga is crudely and often referred to as poor man’s caviar, a cliché as ineffectual as Beirut’s “Paris of the Middle East”. More than caviar, bottarga reminds me of a super-aged Parmesan cheese that originated under-water. It grates into a glorious shower of saffron flakes that melt into pasta, adding a briny and buttery punch and an electric salinity that makes instantly clear the reason people started eating fish eggs in the first place: they’re just so good.

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico

Updated: August 6, 2014 04:00 AM