Azerbaijan’s Caviar Memories
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Text: Vafa Zeynalova  Photo: Sultana Ahmadbayli

 

Expensive food is not necessarily tasty. Take caviar: Lali Lobjanidze and Gulnara Mekhtiyeva grew up hating it. Until the break-up of the Soviet Union, Lobjanidze’s mother worked in a caviar-processing factory and the precious delicacy was a daily staple.

“I couldn’t stand it. It was like the ‘White Sun of the Desert’ movie. I was fed up with it,” remembers the 35-year-old programmer, referring to a Soviet cult classic in which a customs official eats caviar every day and ends up loathing it.

Baku native Lobjanidze, though, could not escape caviar: when her mother left her job at the factory, her parents sometimes got it “from fishermen we knew,” she says.

Mekhtiyeva, a 28-year-old social activist also from Baku, recalls how a good friend of her father regularly used to give caviar to her family in three-kilo jars at a time.

“We didn’t particularly like it, so it would sit [in the kitchen] and go bad. Then it became rare,” she recalls. “The last time I tasted it was three years ago, and it was red. I’d bought it in a duty-free shop. It wasn’t anything special.”

Konul Rustamova, a 34-year-old bank official, recalls her father saying that caviar-skeptics did not understand anything about food. Rustamova works in Baku, but hails from Neftchala, one of Azerbaijan’s fishing centers. Caviar was abundant while she was growing up. She still has clear memories of eating black roe with soup at dinner time.

“My father liked to give it as a gift to foreign guests,” says Rustamova. “They would sometimes turn their noses up [in disgust] and we laughed, and said that they didn’t understand anything about food.”

A Taza Bazaar stand features packaged Azerbaijani caviar. One consumer advocate warns against “fake” caviar sold without label descriptions or Russian roe repackaged to appear Azerbaijani.
It is not easy to find genuine black caviar. “You should buy it, grab it for 90 manats ($53),” says this seller, who did not identify the exact origin of his own supply.
Due to their large size, there are no sturgeon in the fish tanks in the Taza Bazaar.
Cleaned sturgeon and caviar on a counter at Taza Bazaar, one of the Caucasus’ largest markets. Sturgeon fishing is banned in Azerbaijan and the valuable fish are bred in farms, mostly around the southern city of Neftchala.

Unlike oil, though, roe is in scarce supply. Until the 1990s, about 90 percent of the world’s black caviar came from the Caspian Sea. With Iran the only non-Soviet part of the shoreline,  the USSR monopolized the world market. Illegal fishing was not unusual, but experts maintain that Soviet leaders strictly controlled and regulated Caspian fishing.

This caviar industry collapsed with the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and, since then, overfishing and pollution have decimated the Caspian’s sturgeon population.

To correct that trend, the Caspian Sea countries, including Azerbaijan, have cracked down on poaching since the early 2000s.

Russia introduced a moratorium on commercial sturgeon fishing in 2008 and other Caspian Sea countries followed suit in 2011; there are talks to extend it for an additional 20 years.

What sturgeon fishing does occur is allowed only for research and under strict quotas.

In 2016, Azerbaijan restricted black caviar exports: foreigners can purchase it only in licensed shops in international airports and take a maximum of 125 grams out of the country.

 

A man takes a selfie among tanks full of fish in the Taza Bazar.
Dried fish in a shop window at Taza Bazaar
Salmon features frequently in Azerbaijani cuisine.
Boxes of dried shemaya, a fish belonging to the carp family, and a staple in Azerbaijan

Over the last decade, Azerbaijan has also financed the opening of sturgeon farms. According to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, fish farms produce an average of 8 million tons of baby sturgeon each year. A portion of this number is released into the Caspian Sea to revive the population.

It will take decades. Out of the 25 different breeds of sturgeon, only three produce valuable black caviar. It takes about 20 years for females of the beluga variety, the most critically endangered and the most valuable, to reach sexual maturity. That leaves the species highly vulnerable to overfishing.  

Meanwhile, as the amount of sturgeon has dwindled, caviar prices have shot up. Today, with prices as high as 2,000 manats ($1,176) per kilogram, few can afford the delicacy.

The last time 55-year-old builder Akram Aliyev ate some, he paid a tenth of that -- $100 per 200 grams. In the early 1990s, Aliyev decided to give some caviar as a present to his wife, who was expecting their first child. He headed to Buzovna, south of Baku.

Aliyev recalls the high cliffs towering above bright, sandy beaches; the wooden boats moored by the shore and fishing boats sailing over the horizon. Neither the cliffs, nor the boats still exist. The former were ground into stone to be used in construction; the latter sit ashore as no fish are left to be caught.

The price Aliyev paid contrasts sharply with the 1970s, when one kilo of roe would cost about 20 rubles, interviewed Azerbaijanis estimated. A decade later, the price tag in cities doubled to 40 rubles per kilo, they claimed. With most Azerbaijani households, according to one study, earning less than 150 rubles per month by the late 1980s, that price was already out of reach for many people.

 

A can of Russian caviar stands between two bottles of Azerbaijani narşərab, a pomegranate sauce widely used with fish.
Fish waiting to be washed after being gutted at the Taza Bazaar

Still earlier, in the 1940s, roe was handed over in jars. The father of 42-two-year-old safety engineer Anton Saburov  used to tell him that, during World War II, hunger was so severe that fishermen would hand out entire bowls of caviar, often for free.

“Many would eat neither crayfish nor lamprey and would throw both away. So, one could just collect it,” Saburov describes his father as saying.

Those days are gone, yet, in the fish section of Taza Bazaar, Baku’s largest market, caviar is still on display and ready for the taking. Not all of that black caviar is real, though, warns Eyyub Huseynov, and none of it comes from sturgeon living in the wild.

Huseynov, the chairman of the Baku-based Union of Free Consumers, claims there are three types of roe on offer:  the utterly “fake,” which is packaged without any information; the “artificial,” which claims to be caviar, but is in fact made out of regular fish fat; and genuine roe, produced in local, government-regulated fish farms, largely located in southern Azerbaijan.

Those Azerbaijanis who, as children, snacked on caviar on toast, now long for that genuine product. Schoolteacher Rena Aliyeva, 39, hasn’t eaten any since she was a little girl.

“I never had enough of it. How I would love some [today]!”

 

Cans of black caviar, the most expensive item at the Taza Bazaar
Fish and pork sellers at Baku’s Taza Bazaar
Smoked fish are a favorite beer snack for Azerbaijani men.
“I am the most professional fish seller,” Taza trader Jeyhun says proudly. Most of the market’s fish comes from the Azerbaijani towns of Salyan, Neftcahala and Sumgayit.
A gift box for caviar on display at Taza Bazaar
Chai Khana
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