Aquaculture experts share the process — and intricate beauty — behind their locally produced Hilo caviar.
Raw eggs from aquatic creatures appear in delicacies around the world— from Japan’s salmon ikura to Spain’s sea urchin roe — but none is as revered or iconic as caviar. Served at the most upscale of dining establishments, their onyx surfaces glimmer in candle- light, reinforcing the notion that these tiny solitaires are indeed gems worth treasuring and savoring with every bite. And while roe in bright oranges and reds have their well-deserved place in luxury dining, only the eggs from sturgeon earn the designation of caviar.
Often, little to no thought is given as to where the exquisite roe comes from, but producing osetra caviar is an intricate process that takes skill, knowledge and a whole lot of patience.
“It’s one of the main reasons why more people don’t raise them,” says Dr. Kevin Hopkins. “It takes a long time before you start getting product.”
Hopkins would know — by long, he means about five years to fertile maturation, which is quite a while, especially in the aquaculture realm — as he and business partner Howard Takata have been doing this for nearly three decades in the eastern town of Hilo.
The duo — Hopkins an aquaculture professor within the University of Hawai‘i System, and Takata an extension agent and Sea Grant aquaculture agent — have been in the industry for quite some time. Between the two of them, they’ve racked up experience raising everything from shrimp to rainbow trout, and finally settled on sturgeon as their long-term project.
“We started in 1995,” recalls Takata. “We got the first sturgeon eggs from Russia, and, since then, we’ve imported eggs and fingerlings from Europe.”
They started with about 50 of the pre- historic fish — which have maintained their same elongated, armored physique since ancient times — and now have about 10 on the quaint Hilo property.
Come winter, the sturgeon females will be full of caviar, and Takata, Hop- kins and their team will get to work. They stage the fish, waiting for the perfect black orbs to come to fruition, the color indicating optimal freshness.
One female can produce up to two dozen 200-gram jars, which are kept in optimal conditions until they’re shipped to their destinations — mostly local operations.
Places like Hy’s Steak House and the former Alan Wong’s to The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort — in fact, many a hotel and restaurant up and down Hawai‘i Island’s Kohala coast — have long been patrons of the islands’ only locally produced caviar and filets.
Those fortunate enough to dine on this locally produced caviar get lost in its extravagance, and seeing how Hawai‘i’s restaurants utilize this elegant ingredient is a sight (and taste) to behold.
While an indulgence all on its own, caviar is often paired with staples like crème fraiche atop breads or a crisp cucumber, or alongside a decadent sea- food tower — all of which highlight each salty, buttery burst of flavor. But the beauty of this unassuming cuisine is its simplicity and authenticity of flavor, something Hopkins and Takata aspire to uphold.
“It’s malossol (the Russian word for lightly salted); we only use light salt,” explains Takata. “Just put it fresh on crackers or blini; that’s the Russian way to serve it. We don’t mix it with anything else. It’s just eaten as is.”
That freshness is a rarity in the industry and what makes this local operation special. Hawai‘i has long established itself as one of the world’s top travel destinations, renowned as a tropical paradise encompassing breathtaking landscapes and an inclination toward magnificent weather, and it’s this same nonpareil weather that makes the state an ideal place to raise these utilitarian fish.
“We found they grow fast in Hawai‘i,” shares Takata. “We don’t have cold winters, and we have cool water, about 69-degree spring water.”
Compared to other species, sturgeon require cool water (ranging from about 68 degrees to the low 70s) to mature and grow — and boy do they get big. Currently, the 10 or so sturgeon on Takata’s property are anywhere from 80 to 90 pounds, and it takes three people to handle one fish.
There’s no doubt it’s a lot of work, but it’s been a true labor of love for Hopkins and Takata, both enjoying retirement now. Well, kind of.
“Only in the winter months we find that females will be full of caviar,” Takata explains. “That means our season is coming up.”