How to choose and buy real red caviar in Russia and Moscow.
Red caviar is one of Russian staple foods. Red caviar in Russia is relatively inexpensive, easy to buy, popular among locals. Red caviar has been an export product throughout most of Russian history.
As you may know, red caviar comes from salmon. Not many people realize “salmon” is a collective name for many different species of fish. Salmon in Russian is ЛОСОСЬ (LOSOS’) also known as “red fish” or КРАСНАЯ РЫБА (KRASNAYA RIBA) because of its distinctive pink to red color of meat.
All species of salmon produce different red caviar. This means size, color, texture and ultimately TASTE of red caviar varies depending on a salmon specie the caviar comes from.
Beware, nowadays many shops (especially large retailers) sell red caviar from farmed lake trout. If the packaging says РАДУЖНАЯ ФОРЕЛЬ this is lake trout caviar and this is a FAKE red caviar. Real, natural red caviar must come from wild sea salmon.
When you are buying red caviar, there must be a clear indication on the packaging of what kind of salmon the caviar comes from. If it just says ЛОСОСЕВАЯ (salmon), you will be buying the cheapest kind of caviar or a fake. This means you need to read what is written on a packaging of caviar before you buy it. I suggest not to buy unpackaged caviar sold by weight. Primarily because you never know what you are buying, but also the quality of such caviar not worth money paid.
Good manufacturers directly indicate salmon specie the caviar comes from.
Before buying any caviar, look at its packaging contents (as usual, written in a small font). Aside from caviar, salt and 1-2 preservatives there must be no other ingredients. Preservatives are required to keep caviar from spoiling quick. Other than salt and preservatives, there must be nothing in the caviar you are about to buy. The caviar must have no sugar, no any other ingredient that would clearly indicate a FAKE or low quality product.
Very rarely you can find red caviar not containing any preservatives, just salt. It’s a very fresh and very natural product, this type of caviar must be consumed within 1-2 days after purchase. This type of caviar is never sold in grocery stores, only in specialty caviar shops. Specialty caviar shops are found around Moscow. Those are not caviar shops in airports (who knows what they sell?).
Examine the caviar packaging sticker further. It is good to know where manufacturer of the caviar is located. If it’s Far East of Russia, specifically Sakhalin and Kamchatka, most likely the caviar you are buying was made from fresh raw caviar. If caviar manufacturer is located somewhere else (especially central Russia), it most likely is made from frozen caviar (or it’s a fake).
There are specialty shops in Moscow that sell only red caviar from Sakhalin. Their caviar is made from freshly caught wild fish.
Ideal packaging for red caviar is a glass or plastic jar. Small metal cans so popular and still produced since soviet times is not a good option, primarily because you can’t see what is inside.
When you buy caviar, examine contents of packaging. Caviar grains must be whole, have even color, same size. Caviar grains must not be broken. When the caviar is of a lower quality, caviar grains are broken and what you buy is mostly caviar liquid. This is the type of not canned caviar most grocery stores in Moscow sell by weight. (Hint — don’t buy it, as it’s low quality product or a fake)
As mentioned, there are different types of caviar depending on a salmon specie it comes from. Below list has description of caviar from the most popular species of salmon (names of salmon are in Russian as it would be indicated on a can with caviar).
КЕТА (KETA) — has one of largest caviar grains, 5-7 millimeters in diameter, red-orange colored, the grain’s shell is more stiff. Has very gentle buttery taste. Keta is the most pricey kind of red caviar.
ГОРБУША (GORBUSHA) — caviar grains have size of 3-5 millimeters, light-orange colored, the taste is universal. The most inexpensive and popular type of red caviar.
КИЖУЧ (KIZHUCH)— caviar grains are 3-4 millimeters, have dark red color and a slightly bitter taste.
НЕРКА (NERKA) — caviar grains are about 3 millimeters in diameter, bright red color, taste is a bit bitter.
ЧАВЫЧА (CHAVYCHA) — one of largest caviar grains, 6-7 millimeters in diameter, rich red color, slightly “spicy” taste.
Above taste descriptions are all subjective. Each caviar has its own distinctive taste and only you can say how each caviar really tastes to you. If you are in Russia for a long time, try each kind and decide what you like the best. If you are on a short visit, try whatever picks your attention, you will not be disappointed. Real red caviar from wild salmon, properly made is a high quality product, tasty and full of good nutrients.
There are many ways to serve and eat red caviar. In soviet tradition red caviar is served in halves of hard boiled egg whites. Red caviar goes well on a slice of white or black bread. Having caviar with Russian pancakes is also a good way of eating it.
My personal choice is a thin slice of black bread with some butter on top of it and red caviar on top of the butter. Cold vodka shot makes an excellent compliment to red caviar served this way.