KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian fish farming business is hoping to dip into the multibillion-dollar global market for caviar after accidentally stumbling into producing the gourmet delicacy.
When Taiwanese entrepreneur Chien Wei Ho, one of the owners of the T’lur Caviar brand, first started harvesting sturgeon in Malaysia, he never expected to end up in the lucrative caviar trade.
Wei Ho and his group of Malaysian sturgeon farmers were based in a country not best-suited for harvesting caviar, mainly due to a lack of technological support and unfavorable weather conditions.
It was only after 10 years of sturgeon farming that the business partners “accidentally” discovered the “gold mine” after one of the fish had to be euthanized. When they cut it open, its egg sack was full of caviar.
“He (Wei Ho) was taken aback. For many years he had been told the fish could not have caviars,” Shaun Kenneth Simon, T’lur’s chief marketing officer told Arab News.
A company director came up with the idea to “market the caviars instead of just selling fish,” and before long they were swimming against the tide cultivating the prized delicacy for Malaysian clients.
“What we are doing here is very different from other countries. We discovered the caviars by chance,” said Simon.
He said that 12 years ago, Wei Ho – who also owns several resorts in Taiwan – was cultivating fish and flower farms and was well-known for growing beautiful orchids. “Rearing sturgeon was just a hobby for him.”
However, when a typhoon struck Taiwan and destroyed all his farms, Wei Ho decided to look for a safer place to operate from.
“Through his friends, he came to Tanjung Malim, in Perak, where he decided to dabble in the sturgeon farm business in Malaysia,” Simon said.
Malaysia was the obvious choice, he added, especially since it was rarely impacted by natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes.
Nevertheless, big challenges were in store for Wei Ho. Experts, including a German aquaculture specialist, warned that the fish would probably not live past three years old, let alone lay eggs.
“Malaysia has a warm tropical climate and without any expensive, climate-controlled machinery to keep the water cool, many advised Wei Ho that the fish would not survive,” Simon added.
To overcome the hurdle, Wei Ho used local aquaculture techniques to acclimatize the sturgeon to Malaysia’s climate. “Basically, we taught the fish how to survive in Malaysia’s temperature.”
The process worked, but Wei Ho had only planned to rear and sell the fish, not harvest caviar.
Sturgeon have a lucrative market potential because they are high in collagen and rich in omega oils. Because Malaysia does not have a proper winter, sturgeon can be harvested there 50 percent faster than anywhere else in the world.
Seven species are reared on the farm, but the ones used for caviar are Siberian and Amur.
The brand name T’lur also came about by chance. “Because international brands have cool names, we thought ‘why not call it telur?’ which means eggs in Malay language. And because we were all Malaysians, we put an apostrophe in the word to make it sound French,” Simon said.
Currently, T’lur caviar is marketed only in Malaysia despite growing demand from neighboring countries, but the company is planning to go global. Most of its customers are chefs from fine-dining city restaurants.
“We are bringing something new to Malaysia, which is not really known for producing luxury products. We are learning to refine this further to bring it to a higher standard,” he added.
Caviar is a high-end luxury delicacy that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilogram. One of the most expensive in the luxury market is beluga caviar, mainly found in the world’s largest salt-water lake, the Caspian Sea.
With an insatiable appetite for fish eggs from several countries around the world, the market for the product is expected to be worth $1.64 billion (SR6.11 billion) by 2025, according to a survey conducted by Adroit Market Research.
The study revealed that greater access to international cuisine, along with stronger purchasing powers, had seen demand soar.