The eggs of a lumpfish are known as lumpfish roe. This roe is often sold as a caviar alternative, although some caviar fans have complained that unscrupulous caviar packers try to pass it off as true sturgeon roe, the source of real caviar. Before being sent to market, lumpfish eggs are salted for preservation and then canned; they are typically lightly salted to maintain a clear flavor, and they may need to be refrigerated as a result. Many markets sell lumpfish roe, along with other caviar alternatives and a few jars of the real deal.
”Lumpfish” is a generic term for fish in the family Cyclopteridae. They are not terribly attractive to look at, although they have evolved one interesting trait: their pelvic fins are sticky, which means that the fish can essentially stick themselves to surfaces. Since lumpfish are bottom dwellers, this trait can be quite useful, anchoring the fish while it waits for food. They spawn in shallow water, laying thousands of eggs in adhesive packets that will break open when the eggs are ready to hatch. Young lumpfish typically stay in shallow waters until they are fully developed, making them easy prey for predators.
Historically, lumpfish have been caught and consumed by native peoples in Scandinavia, near their North Atlantic habitat. In North America, the oily flesh was largely disdained, with most fisheries treating the fish as a bycatch and canning the meat for dog food. When caviar prices began to climb in the 1960s, however, fisheries realized a new use for lumpfish, as a source of cheap roe that could ride on the coattails of the caviar craze.
While caviar snobs may look down their noses at eggs from lumpfish, the roe can be quite good when it is well handled. If treated carefully, it will have the distinctive poppy mouthfeel of caviar, with each egg bursting open in response to gentle pressure from the teeth. Lightly salted lumpfish roe can be used like caviar to accompany various appetizers, and it can also be added to pasta sauces and spreads as well as dishes like omelettes.
Lumpfish roe comes in a range of colors in nature, but most of the roe sold commercially is dyed to be either red or black. Naturally colored eggs can make an unusual appetizer, as they develop in a rainbow of colors. Poorly handled roe can be truly atrocious, however. If a shopper buys roe that is oily or fishy, he or she should return it and demand a refund.
For people who are concerned about overfishing, lumpfish roe is an excellent alternative to caviar. Sturgeon populations are severely depleted because of mismanagement by the caviar industry, and many advocates of sustainable fishing have encouraged people to think about alternatives to caviar like lumpfish, salmon, herring, and trout roe.