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Caviar in Thailand? Thanks to technology and a local fish farm, it’s not as rare as you might think

Caviar is breaking into Thailand’s fine-dining scene thanks to an innovative farm outside Bangkok and technology that creates a more ethical, affordable product

Traditionally caviar producers kill sturgeon to extract the eggs, but at the Thai Sturgeon Farm the fish are ‘milked’ instead and so live longer

Chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn makes a dish using caviar from Thai Sturgeon Farm at his Lahnyai Nusara restaurant in Bangkok. Photo: AFP South China Morning Post

At his upmarket Bangkok restaurant, Michelin-star chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn spoons black caviar onto a plate, adding the newly affordable Thailand-produced delicacy to his reinterpreted family recipes.

The luxury food, better associated with chilly northern nations, is breaking into the Southeast Asian country’s fine-dining scene, with the 37-year-old celebrity cook able to economically serve the roe thanks to an innovative farm outside the Thai capital.

Using hi-tech harvesting methods, a Thai-Russian partnership is offering a more ethical and affordable product by sparing the endangered sturgeon that provide the delicacy from their usual fate – death.

“The price is … more affordable, I would say, compared to the ones that we imported,” Ton says as he sprinkles caviar over Thai dip lhon pu at his restaurant Lahnyai Nusara.

A dish using caviar from Thai Sturgeon Farm. Photo: AFP South China Morning Post

Using caviar helps challenge perceptions that Thai cuisine must always be spicy and with strong flavours, he adds.

“I think it’s opened many doors for many chefs to use it as well,” he says.

Roughly 200 kilometres (125 miles) away, at the popular seaside resort town of Hua Hin, it is time to harvest “black gold” at the Thai Sturgeon Farm, which supplies local distributor Caviar House.

Hundreds of the giant fish swim in tanks kept at a balmy 21 degrees Celsius (70 Fahrenheit) – a world away from the chilly Caspian Sea where the species live in the wild.

“No one else has this kind of farm in a tropical climate,” says the farm’s co-owner, Alexey Tyutin.

Alexey Tyutin (left) is the co-owner of the Thai Sturgeon Farm in the coastal province of Hua Hin. Photo: AFP South China Morning Post

The fish – considered living dinosaurs – can survive for up to 100 years and grow to as much as four metres long.

Traditionally caviar producers kill the female fish to extract the eggs, but Tyutin’s farm “milks” the sturgeon instead.

Keeping the fish alive as long as possible helps make the venture sustainable and profitable, the 55-year-old says.

During harvesting, sturgeon are moved to the “winter room”, where the temperature is initially set to six degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit), then increased to 15 Celsius before their eggs are extracted.

“Let’s say if the fish weighs 25 kilograms [55 pounds], we usually expect about 2.6 to 2.7 kilograms of caviar,” Tyutin says. The farm estimates it may produce up to two tonnes this year, he adds.

Breeding sturgeon in a simulated environment requires vast amounts of energy – despite the use of solar panels, the monthly electricity bill is almost US$9,000.

Tyutin (left) holding a container of caviar beside business partner Noppadon Khamsai. Photo: AFP
South China Morning Post

“We are chilling down the water because the water temperature outside is 31 degrees. These fish can’t tolerate it and they will die immediately,” Tyutin says.

But Thailand’s tropical climate has given the business a competitive advantage: the higher water temperature helps sturgeon mature at six years old compared to 11 in Russia.

While Caviar House is only selling domestically at the moment – with a tin of the delicacy retailing for between US$230 and US$832 – it hopes to expand to exporting in the future.

Recent European Union sanctions against Moscow over its forces’ invasion of Ukraine have targeted caviar, but the restrictions are largely symbolic, as Russia is only a small exporter.

Instead, competition comes from China, which has become the market giant, producing 84 per cent of the world’s sturgeon, according to a European Commission report.

The industry suffered during the pandemic with high-end restaurants, airlines and cruise ships battered by travel curbs, although some fine-dining establishments adapted by decreasing portions and incorporating them into takeaway meals.

Ton making a dish using caviar from Thai Sturgeon Farm at the Lahnyai Nusara restaurant in Bangkok. Photo: AFP
South China Morning Post

Still, the international caviar market is expected to record compound annual growth of seven per cent between 2020 and 2025, according to a 2021 report by Technavio Research.

France, Germany, China, Spain, the United States, Japan and Russia are major markets, but demand is growing fast in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region.

Well-heeled Thai foodies and chefs are recognising the benefits of caviar, rich in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.

“It took only a few days for Thai chefs to start ordering after we sent samples for them to try,” says farm co-owner Noppadon Khamsai, 43. “They say this is a good product and the importance is it’s made in Thailand, and they’re really proud to be presenting this Thai product.”

Source: Caviar in Thailand?.