One thousand and one nights of caviar – Iran

Antonius Caviar

The second largest country producing caviar was Iran. The history of breeding and caviar production in this cuontry might not be as exciting as in the case of Russia, yet it also had its turning points.

The beginnings of caviar in Iran date back to the times of the Persian Empire. Even A Thousand and One Nights from 9th-10th century mention caviar. And although it’s just a collection of legends and some idea of the past, caviar was there considered to be a source of energy (the original name of caviar chav-jar can be translated as “power cookie”) and valued for its medicinal properties.
The status of caviar changed dramatically with the advent of Islam because according to the rules of this religion, sturgeon was seen as unclean food and it was forbidden to eat it. This was due to the fact that sturgeon does not have scales but a type of cartilage on its skin. Hence, Muslims did not even want to touch the fish and treated caviar as a simple seaside snack to which they did not pay much attention.  This situation was successfully used by the Russians.

At the turn of the 20th century, due to the growing demand for caviar, Russia could not keep pace with the production.  The cooperation with a producer of Armenian origin – Stefan Matinovic Lianozow was supposed to be a solution so they decided to give him financial support. Lianozow opened a very modern for its time processing plant on Iranian coastline of the Caspian Sea. Although he struggled with a lack of people willing to work  (Muslims did not want to touch sturgeons) and had to bring fishermen from Russia, these minor problems with workers did not prevent him from becoming a local Rockefeller.

Eventually the Bolsheviks led to the division of Lianozov’s valuable fisheries between Russia and Iran. For the USSR it was an important step to achieve a monopolist position in the Caspian Sea basin. The Soviet Union not only took over 90% of caviar sales in the world, but even dictated prices for the caviar obtained by Iranians. Uneven Russian-Iranian cooperation flourished until the 1950s. It was only after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had come to power that Iran’s position on the international arena was gradually strengthened and the Soviet influence systematically reduced, which finally allowed to build Iranian power in the caviar world. 

After the Iranian Islamic revolution, caviar was seen as an additional source of income to the economy. In 1983, at the request of the Ayatollah Khomeini a scientific council was formed. According to the council, there were a couple of scales between the dorsal fin and the tail of sturgeon – it was thus announced that the consumption of sturgeon and caviar was allowed, which allowed Muslims to touch fish previously considered unclean. Not only consumption in the country increased, but until 2009 (this year CITES suspended the license for wild caviar from the Caspian Sea) Iran had achieved the title of the biggest producer of caviar coming from wild sturgeon.

Iran, as one of the few countries in the Caspian Sea, undertook wide-reaching efforts to rebuild the population of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. They invested in all infrastructure necessary for the development of sturgeon breeding, and they implemented the policy of replacing each specimen caught in the Caspian Sea with a new fish fry. Also, when in 1999 the Caspian Sea was affected by the invasion of comb jellyfish (a predatory ctenophore), it was the Iranian authorities that took decisive action to save the endangered sturgeons.