Watch: Why It's A Big Deal That T'lur Caviar Is Being Harvested In Our Waters
Located in Tanjung Malim, Perak, T'lur Caviar, which has scooped up armfuls of awards from aquaculture associations, is the first company in the world to successfully reap caviar from coldwater fish in a tropical climate
My fight-or-flight instinct blinks like the coloured Christmas lights in Netflix's Stranger Things. Wouldn't yours if a masked stranger in surgical coveralls beckoned to you from a bare-bones shed? But a closer look at the potential perpetrator reveals recognisable traits: a neatly trimmed beard peeking out from beneath his mask, and glasses that comically fog up as he transitions from air-conditioned space to balmy outdoors.
Shaun Simon, marketing director of T'lur Caviar, wipes the water vapour off of his lens, and says by way of half apology, "When we experience high demand, even the marketing team has to help the floor staff to meet quota. We've been doing quite alright this year!"
The Big Fish
Three characters are indispensable to T'lur Caviar's story.
Often seen as a pair in the public eye, marketing director Shaun Simon and managing director AJ Lim are the 'face' of the brand, especially in English news circulations.
But it took a third man's derring-do to upend the very landscape of the caviar market. Chien Wei Ho, whose bushy eyebrows give him the appearance of a sage scholar, is a Taiwanese septuagenarian with hot stakes in the hospitality industry. By life's strange twists and turns, Chien's hopes of opening a hotel chain in Malaysia in 2006 were overridden by a different dream: to successfully harvest caviar in Malaysian waters.
Gold embossed certificates and a glitzy trophy, material indicators of Chien's success, glint in the background during our interview with T'lur Caviar's team. Speaking with great gusto, Chien raises a finger for every world record they've beaten: 1) Being the first company to breed arctic sturgeon in a tropical country, 2) growing sturgeon at an astoundingly fast pace and 3) producing top quality caviar in the shortest amount of time.
Note that this journey was neither linear nor sans interruptions.
Initially 'citizens' of China, T'lur Caviar's sturgeon were transported to Malaysia in the early 2000s, where they literally came to exemplify 'fish out of water.'
"We made a number of mistakes—8 times, to be exact—and spent 10 years on R&D alone," grumbles Datuk Tan, a small, fiesty shareholder who has tagged along on our tour of the facilities. "But while China struggles with natural disasters, we are free of earthquakes and volcanoes. We are now the best in the world!" he brags unabashedly. "They might still be the world’s largest producer of caviar, but Malaysia is the speediest." Size matters, as sturgeon typically produce roe weighing 10 to 15% of their total body weight; you can count on getting 10 to 15 kilograms of caviar from a 100-kilogram fish.
A 12-month-old sturgeon from China’s best farms weighs 600 grams, whereas ours reaches up to 2 kilograms.
Climatic challenges aside, T'lur Caviar found themselves untangling a lot of sticky red tape. "It’s not easy ah!" warns Datuk Tan, wagging a finger. "You need a lot of writing." The biggest barrier to entry in the caviar industry, it would seem, is the head-scratching process of acquiring permits and paperwork. A note to consumers: There are very few instances where wild-caught caviar is legal, so exercise caution if you see any on supermarket shelves. Farm-bred caviar, whilst serving commercial demand, also contributes to wildlife conservation.
The Weight Of Water
High-quality H2O, Perak's claim to fame, is credited for a wide range of things, from the silken texture of Ipoh's tau fu fah (soft tofu) and hor fun (flat rice noodles) to the exquisite flavour of T'lur Caviar's sturgeon and roe.
"Our strength lies in the cleanliness of our water," enthuses Datuk Tan. To prove a point, he proceeds to wash his face using water from the closest pond. I stifle a smile, but there is certainly something to be said about the spick and span facilities. Anyone who has ever stepped foot on a fish farm knows to expect a stink, but all we get here is a pleasant whiff of salinity.
Beginning at the hatchery, which is lined with bathtub-like vessels, our tour of the farm concludes at an Olympic-size 'swimming pool,' where sturgeon aged 5 years and above propel themselves from end to end with languid flicks of their tails.
"Are you the aquaculture expert here?" I ask Lee Chee Kai, whose name card reads 'Farm Manager with a degree in agro-fisheries.'
"I wouldn’t say that. There is too much to learn," is his humble response before turning to the sturgeon that has been selected for today's live harvesting demo. I avert my gaze as Lee knocks the fish unconscious in an isolation pond, his meek front at odds with his mechanical swiftness.
Carving Out A Niche
Upholding transparency, T'lur Caviar allows us to shadow them in the 4 rooms that make up their processing plant:
- Extraction Room
A two-man job, extraction calls for one person to slit open the sturgeon while the goes deep, emerging with fistfuls of 'black gold.'
- Separation Room
The team gently ‘grates’ the fish ovaries against a sieve to remove its protective membrane. Rinsing is next: with a sideways jet of water to limit breakage.
3. Cleaning & Salting room
Tedious yet strangely satisfying, tweezing minuscule blobs of fat from the caviar feels like a never-ending task; flipping over each mound reveals more stringy white bits. I'm about to wave the white flag when AJ decides that the caviar is black as black can be.
Bario (said to imbibe an ashy flavour), Himalayan (prized for its subtlety) or sea salt (high salinity) is gently folded into different mounds of caviar, changing their greyish colour to a greenish-black.
Water, which has seeped out of the caviar as a result of osmosis, is drained before the product is finally packaged. "While each batch's shelf-life is 2 months, I always advice our customers to consume their caviar within 2 weeks," says Shaun while packing as much caviar as possible into the company's iconic black and gold tins.
An Adaptable Ingredient
Once reserved for English monarchs, Chinese emperors and Russian tsars, sturgeon (along with whales) were categorised as 'royal fish.' Commoners hardly dared crave a taste in those horse and buggy days.
Such barriers have come crumbling down—the precious commodity is now accessible to anyone with a perky pay check, although T'lur Caviar much prefers to deal directly with restaurants rather than dabble in retail.
Malaysian caviar now cosies up to cubed pumpkin and cavatelli at Sitka Studio and can be found contained within pai tee shells at ATAS Modern Malaysian Eatery. Not only does it crown Entier French Dining's perfect globes of escargot croquettes; the rustic restaurant even revamped its entire brunch menu to revolve around the prize ingredient. A winning trifecta of salt, fat and sugar, the caviar ice cream put out by T'lur Caviar and Pun's Ice Cream was the pièce de résistance at a charity dégustation earlier this year.
Other tastemakers such as Chef Darren Chin are even finding ways to make delicious things from every part of the sturgeon.
Reportedly replete with vitamins A, B6, B12 and E and minerals like iron, magnesium and selenium, the primitive fish is nutrient-dense—of this we are convinced, especially after meeting sprightly old Mr Chien.
"If only the Malaysian government would provide us with more space," sighs the senior. "Malaysia could then become the largest producer of sturgeon in the world."
T'lur Caviar presently cares for some 20,000 sturgeon in its farm spanning 3.3 acres, but its investors are in the process of acquiring 60 acres more. Do the math and you'll realise how much more is yet to come.
- Photography Dean Shari
- Videography Dean Shari