It is common knowledge that caviar is a luxury item. The sturgeons that produce this salt-cured delicacy are known to inhabit cold water – far, far away from our waters here in Malaysia.
However, the folks at T’lur (that's pronounced as telur
) made the impossible possible by successfully rearing seven species of the fish that belong to the Acipenseridae family right here in Malaysia – to be more specific, at a 3.3-acre farm in Tanjung Malim, Perak.
We sat down with Shaun Simon
, Chief Marketing Officer of T’lur and Jesslyn Jacinda
, Account Manager of T’lur, to know more about the story behind this interesting venture and what the future holds for the company and nation alike.
According to Jesslyn, it all started when Chien Wei Ho, a Taiwanese whose sturgeon farm back in his homeland was affected by a typhoon. The rage of Mother Nature resulted in the loss of his sturgeons.
Concluding that Taiwan is not a suitable location for sturgeon farming, he came to Malaysia to source for good land and clean water supply to pursue the activity here.
In 2008, he managed to locate one in Tanjung Malim.
While he may have crossed one issue off the list, the ‘headache’ was far from over.
“It took many years for him to research and find out how to get the sturgeons to survive in Malaysia because sturgeons are cold-water fish. So, when he first brought some here – the adult ones – they didn’t adapt well,” Jesslyn disclosed.
When he finally figured out how to acclimatise the fish to our tropical weather, he would also soon learn that they would be able to harvest caviar from the fish. Not many believed this could happen though.
“In terms of harvesting, we did consult a few experts from Germany and other countries to come and see how they can actually get the sturgeons to lay eggs. But the experts always say, ‘It is impossible to grow sturgeons in Malaysian weather. Even if the sturgeons can grow here; they may not produce eggs.’,” Jesslyn told Rojak Daily
Well, it happened – we now have tropical caviar! If you are wondering why you have only heard of T’lur recently, that’s because they have just started marketing their products early this year.
“We started harvesting last year and started selling this year,” said Jesslyn.
Fun fact: The sturgeons here mature at a faster rate. While arctic sturgeons typically take about 7-8 years to mature for the harvesting of their eggs, the ones that grow here in Malaysia only needs 3-4 years.
“My first few months here, I was the only person for T’lur then. I came on board as a marketing head but with no team,” Shaun reminisced.
“I moved to work with AJ Lim and we brought in people here and there from the office to the farm,” he added.
It was a phase of standardising the processes.
By January this year, they managed to conceptualise the name T’lur and its logo. Speaking of the name, Shaun revealed: “It was meant to be a joke initially”.
A close friend of Shaun, who was the head of the agency they were working with, had always known of his wicked humour trait. He decided to do play with words and come up with “something that sounds French but is uniquely Malaysian”.
“He sent me a bunch of ideas and then, there was this one idea which he put right at the bottom to highlight and it said T’lur,” recalled Shaun.
Presenting it to his director, Shaun was bombarded with questions on the name – “What is this?” “How am I supposed to pronounce this?” “Is this a spelling error?”
Eventually, he managed to convince the decision-makers.
It has proven to be quite a good choice because in the local scene, Malaysians can identify it and it also sparks a sense of curiosity amongst others.
At the moment, the released products are those of the Siberian, Amur and Kaluga-Amur hybrid sturgeons. The Kaluga, Beluga, Russian and Paddlefish will follow suit in a couple of years to come, as they need more time to mature.
On the harvesting process, Jesslyn explained that they would first ensure that the fish has met its minimum weight, which differs according to its species.
“The Amur takes longer to grow than the Siberian.”
The fish would then go through an ultrasound scan to ensure the eggs are of ideal quantity.
“After we ultrasound them and we see sufficient egg, enough for harvesting, we use a device to take out some of the eggs from the fish to see the size of the caviar. That’s how we determine the maturity,” stated Jesslyn.
The Siberian sturgeon eggs must meet the minimum size of 2.5mm while the Amur must be at least 3mm.
“Once we know the fish is ready, we’ll quarantine the fish and put in a separate pond from all of the fish.We will stun the fish, de-blood, then proceed with the opening of the belly,” elaborated Jesslyn.
While she notes that it is not the most ideal method, they currently do not have the expertise to carry out ikejime
, a Japanese way of slaughtering fish by having it brain-dead, a method deemed the most humane way of putting a fish’s life to an end.
Once extracted, the weight of the eggs is measured. To separate the eggs from the membranes that come with it, they will be pressed against a metal mesh.
When the eggs are separated from the membrane, comes the washing process.
“It is like washing rice. We will keep washing it until the water is clear – from murky to clear,” Jesslyn clarified.
While the metal mesh would have separated the bigger parts of the membrane, there would usually still be some small pieces that get stuck with the eggs.
Considering its premium value, presentation is key. Hence, they would ensure the membranes do not make it as part of the final product by removing them each and every bit by hand.
“This is the laborious part. If the fish has a lot of membrane in it, we’ll take about 30 minutes to one hour to pick them out,” revealed Jesslyn.
The next step is the salting process in which they will begin with brining the eggs for a minimum of 15 minutes. Adding to its value, the types of salt used are of Himalayan salt, sea salt, and our very own Bario salt.
“Then, we’ll dry out all the additional water that’s emitted from the caviar. After drying it, we’ll start packaging it into a bigger tin – like, 500g tin.”
The big tins will be kept inside the chiller for one to two weeks for the aging process to take place.
“Once the salt is absorbed by the caviar, it will taste better,” Jesslyn revealed, adding that it will then be packaged into smaller tins – ready to be indulged.
As far as the salt content in caviar is concerned, Shaun stated: “We love our product so much that the amount of salt we put inside our caviar is very strongly controlled.”
He futher added: “We have to note that we’re not feeding you salt. The salt is to bring out the actual flavour and the potential of the caviar. It actually improves the finishing”.
“Normally when we serve our caviar for people to try, we serve it on their hand,” Jesslyn said. The caviar would be placed at the back of your hand, between your thumb and index finger.
“We leave it for about five seconds so it follows the temperature of our body. Then, we slurp it up, right in the middle of our tongue and press it against the roof of our mouth – we don't bite. We just break the umami taste in the middle of our mouth,” Jesslyn enligtened us, caviar noobs.
THE FIRST TASTE
There is always a first time for everything. Trying out caviar is no exception. In such cases, Shaun stressed on the importance of understanding what caviar actually is.
“There are a lot of places that will have labels like salmon roe caviar – that's easy to get. The thing is that salmon roe is not really caviar. It’s just that the ruling on how you determine caviar is very flexible; it’s not really strict, so people sometimes mislead others.”
Caviars have a soft but firm texture – not hard. We were also told that caviar is graded based on its size and colour. The bigger and lighter it is, the higher the grade and each category provide a different experience altogether.
The Siberian caviar is slightly smaller in size and is shiny black in colour. It is saltier and has a distinct flavour. Having sampled this, we can say that it is a burst of sea flavour!
Apparently, many chefs would opt for the Siberian to be incorporated in their dishes because of the stronger flavour it boasts.
The Amur, which ranks higher than the Siberian, is slightly bigger and has a yellowish-greenish appearance. It is less salty, creamier, and nuttier. The umami taste is stronger and it is more for direct consumption.
The Hybrid has a bit of both of the Siberian and Amur traits. It has a distinct taste but it is creamier and nuttier.
THE TROPICAL SIGNIFICANCE
“Over here, being in a tropical environment, they (the sturgeons) grow faster. Technically, that doesn’t change the flavour. What really changes it is how we nurture it, the husbandry.
"Even the water that we put them in affects the taste. That mountain water gives it that fruity flavour because it is clean compared to the muddy water that they’re used to in the cold climate water,” said Shaun.
“You still get your buttery, nutty flavour, which is common for all caviar. What’s not common is that fruity and clean flavour,” he added.
His faith in the product remains unshaken despite several judgments over the lack of ‘muddy’ taste that’s usually associated with standard caviar.
Responding to caviar connoisseurs around the world who tend to make such comparisons for these tropical goods, Shaun said his product was never meant to be the same.
“We are very proud of what we’re doing here simply because there is no standard for this right now. You can’t compare them (the tropical caviar) in a very fair way against traditional caviar because it’s not done the traditional way. So, I’m setting a different standard.
"What I’m asking them instead when they taste my caviar is ‘What do you taste? Do you like the taste or not?’ I’m not asking them if it’s the same as their caviar. It’s not meant to be the same”.
Jesslyn believes that it is a subjective matter.
“It has a lot to do with the eater’s preference.
“Different caviar from different brands all over the world is really distinct and different. So, we can’t really compare. And our taste for Malaysia is actually unique on its own because ours is mild and it’s a different kind of umami taste”.
A FLAVOURFUL FUSION
Besides educating the people on how to enjoy the pure flavour of this exquisite treat in the masterclasses they conduct, they also touch on caviar pairings.
“Everyone just thinks ‘Oh, you eat the caviar by itself, that's a waste of RM600-800.’ I agree. So, what we do is actually we take caviar with a lot of other products,” explained Shaun.
T’lur is always working with other local producers and local chefs to create a product like no other.
To date, they have experimented with a variety of other food items, which include fried rice (yes!) and chocolate.
“We put less salt in the fried rice because we want the caviar to give that saltiness and creaminess into it. So, we line the caviar on top and then, we break the caviar into it. Then, we get this really nice flavour. Sometimes, we don't even break the caviar. We just eat a spoonful of caviar with each spoon of rice. So, it brings out a richer flavour,” elaborated Shaun.
While the blend of caviar and fried rice did make sense to us, the caviar and chocolate combo had us raising our eyebrows. Joining hands with Malaysia’s own brilliant chocolatier, Ning from Chocolate Concierge, they came up with a wonderful end product.
“Caviar with chocolate is wonderful because it becomes like salted caramel. I told Ning that I like his vanilla flavours because vanilla contrasts very well against caviar. It doesn't overpower caviar. It complements it. And instead of coming up with one overpowering the other, you get salted caramel as a finishing touch and feel, which is completely different. It’s not something you’d expect.”
Well, we are happy to report that our doubts over the workability of this fusion vanished into thin air as we had a taste of it. It was just splendid!
You can read more about Ning and his sweet creations here
THE OTHER PARTS
Besides the endless possibilities that could be done with the caviar, the fish itself brings with it interesting wonders.
“We have experimented with the fish in a lot of ways,” stated Shaun.
The sturgeons over at their farm are said to be different than any other sturgeons abroad because of the way they are nurtured.
“Sturgeon fishes from overseas are typically kept in mud ponds. They are bottom feeders.”
Due to such habitat, the fish usually has a muddy flavour to it – a taste some enjoy.
“The thing is, in an environment like that, when they eat their food, they sometimes eat the stones at the bottom of the mud pond. This damages their inside, so they become a bit unhealthier,” stated Shaun.
They also had Universiti Sains Malaysia students over at their farm. These are the folks who had gone to Italy to study further about sturgeons. As Shaun cut the sturgeons open to demonstrate how they extract the eggs, one informed him that this is the healthiest sturgeon she had ever seen.
“The inside is pristine, the quality of the organs is good, the liver is not damaged, and there are no stones.”
Explaining how this came to be, Shaun said, “It’s because we keep them in cement ponds and we make sure the cement ponds are well cleaned at all times”.
The clean water source from the mountains contributes to the well being of the sturgeons too.
“And we’re very particular about the husbandry involved. To come up with a very good product, you have to take care of your stock. If none of this is done, disease creeps in. We’d have all kinds of issues,” he further stated.
To this, Shaun highlighted his boss’ dedication. “Our director, Chien Wei Ho, is very particular. He basically sleeps, eats anything to do with fish only. He’s on the farm at all times.”
“We had an incident a couple of weeks back – fish got sick. He quarantined the entire farm. And he told us to stop sales for a while. ‘Let me cure the fish first.’ He is very dedicated to what he does. It’s about ethics for him. He believes in the product 100 per cent,” expressed Shaun.
And because of that, the products that come from the fish are of excellent quality. It is good to note that in the quest for the highly sought-after caviar, the other parts of the fish do not simply go to waste.
Shaun also talked us through how the other parts are put to good use.
“Most Muslim people will never have the chance to eat char siu
(Chinese BBQ pork). But we cut the belly and we sent it to fine dining chefs around. And one of them called me and said, ‘Shaun, do you know what your sturgeon belly tastes like? It tastes like the best kind of char siu
. It even looks like it’. When you cut it up, it has got that nice fat layer at the top and the bottom is the meaty part where you got your protein. That fat is not bad fat – that’s omega oil and collagen there. It’s a really good, healthy fish.”
The Shoulder and Tail
“It’s high protein, lean meat. There’s a bit of fat but very lean and very tasty. And there are chefs like Darren Chin from DC restaurant who makes dry-aged sturgeon. He takes the sturgeon and he does a different form of utilisation. He preserves the meat. It’s really good. It’s nice and creamy.”
“I’ve always liked foie gras. The liver of sturgeon is almost as good – if not better – than foie gras. The best part is it’s ethical. I don't have to force-feed the sturgeons. They just naturally eat when they feel like it. It is not like ducks. We can do this en masse. It’s insane. The flavour that you get from it – it’s tasty.”
Shaun pointed out that sturgeons are rich in collagen.
"You don't have to go slaughter sharks; you have a very good alternate source here. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that we can do which we are looking to delve into but we’re looking for that right experts to help us. We believe there’s a lot of good that can come out from the fish itself."
The future certainly looks promising. Shaun believes that this is the product that could "potentially revolutionise the way we do aquaculture in this country”.
In the next five years, T’lur aims to “increase the caviar output for Malaysia alone to 10 tons a year. That would at least make us produce 6.5% of the world’s caviar output”.
Well, if you’re feeling fancy and want a taste of some tropical caviar, you could head on to their partners’ fine eateries such as the Entier French Dining, Sitka Studio, and Copper. You could also purchase them directly from T’lur.