What's in a name? If it's food, while there may be a hint of the dish's history, we generally expect to learn something about the ingredients. For example, chicken Marengo pretty obviously contains chicken. With a little digging, one could also discover that the dish was created for Napoleon Bonaparte after the Battle of Marengo, but even without study, we're confident that it contains chicken. If you knew nothing else about the dishes, you'd at least know to expect beef in beef stroganoff and pasta in fettucine Alfredo. There are some dishes, however, that have names that give you no clue at all about what you're in for. For example, imam bayaldi and saltimbocca, both great dishes (especially saltimbocca), mean, respectively, "the priest fainted" and "jumps in the mouth."
Still other dishes have misleading names, employing words that identify something other than what you're actually going to consume. Sometimes, the confusion is due to quirks of translation from an original language (cold duck falls into this category). More often, however, a misleading name will indicate that something looks like something else (such as chocolate truffles, which look rather like black truffles), or that the creator of the item feels (or dreams) that the food has achieved great heights (such as anything identified as "the champagne of...").
Truffles and champagne are just two of the delicacies to which other foods aspire. Caviar is another one. It hints at elegance, money, and good living. Interestingly, though caviar is now one of the costliest foods in the world, it was not always so. There was a time that it was so inexpensive that lunch counters in saloons in the U.S. offered it free to anyone ordering a five cent beer. But today, the sturgeon, which gives the best (and only real) caviar, is becoming increasingly rare. This fish, which survived unchanged from prehistoric times, cannot cope with the pollution that is increasing in rivers worldwide.
A hundred years ago, rivers around the world teemed with sturgeon. It was so plentiful in the Hudson that sturgeon was called "Albany beef." At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. still had a thriving caviar industry, but that has now disappeared, as has the caviar industry of Britain. As sturgeons disappear, the price of caviar keeps going up. So while emulation is one reason non-caviar substances are sometimes called caviar, price is another.
Aside from being attached to other fish eggs, in the hopes that you will believe them to be "types of caviar," the name caviar also pops up in milieus far removed from the original. Probably the two most widely known examples are caviar crillo (native caviar, also known as caraotas negras), a delicious black bean dish from Venezuela, and caviar d'aubergines (eggplant caviar, also known as "poor man's caviar"), a delightful appetizer from France.
Because I can rarely afford the quality of caviar I like (and really don't like the caviar I can afford), it's nice to have alternatives—even if neither of these tastes anything like caviar.
The black bean dish might look to some people like really large caviar—after all, the beans are round and black. The caviar d'aubergines is used a bit more like real caviar; it is served chilled, and is spread on bits of French bread. I love both of these dishes, and recommend them highly—even if you like real caviar.
1 cup dried black beans
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
5 Tbs. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 (or more) hot red finger chiles, seeded and minced, or ½ tsp. crushed red chile pepper (or to taste)
2 tsp. ground cumin
salt to taste
Cook the beans in 4 cups lightly salted water until they are tender, about 1 hour. (More water can be added, if it appears that the beans are drying out during cooking.) Drain them and set aside.
Sauté the onion in 2 Tbs. olive oil until it is soft. Add the garlic, chile, and cumin and continue to cook for 2 minutes. Add the beans, the remaining olive oil, and salt to taste. Mix well, and heat through.
Serves 6 as a side dish (great with grilled meat or chicken) or 4 as a light lunch.
1 large eggplant
1 Spanish onion, chopped
1 small green pepper, seeded and chopped
4 tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbs. dry white wine
2 Tbs. fresh parsley, finely chopped
Bake eggplant in a moderately hot oven (400°F) until soft (about 1 hour). Sauté the onion, green pepper, tomatoes, and garlic in 6 to 8 Tbs. olive oil until golden. Peel the baked eggplant, chop the flesh finely, and add to the other vegetables. Simmer gently, stirring from time to time, until mixture is fairly thick.
Stir in the white wine and parsley, and an additional 1 or 2 Tbs. olive oil. Chill. Serve with thin slices of French bread.
One could use 2 eggplants in this recipe without needing to increase the other ingredients. It's a good way of stretching the recipe without sacrificing taste. Also, if you're serving this to guests, you may want to go to the extra trouble of peeling the tomatoes and green pepper. It makes it a little more refined, and avoids having little curled bits of veggie skin in the final product.