10 Luxury Foods that Used to be Cheap and Plentiful
There have been numerous foods throughout history that were once very affordable, dare we say cheap, but that then went through a remarkable transformation, becoming sought-after delicacies – symbols of luxury. These culinary treasures, once accessible to all, now command a premium for various reasons such as scarcity, increased demand, marketing, the cultivation of rare and exceptional varieties, and changing food trends.
The evolution of these foods showcases the dynamic nature of gastronomy, and the effect of economic and cultural shifts turning everyday ingredients into super expensive delicacies.
From mushrooms and caviar to snails and Kobe beef, these formerly budget-friendly staples have now become exclusive indulgences, captivating the palates of discerning connoisseurs and reminding us of the evolving nature of tastes and the allure of gastronomic opulence.
While you may know a few of these remarkable transformations, stay tuned for a few surprises.
1. Caterpillar Fungus | From an affordable Chinese medicinal ingredient to the most expensive mushroom in the world
Caterpillar fungus, also known as Cordyceps sinensis or “yartsa gunbu,” is a unique fungus that infects caterpillars in the wild. It has been highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries due to its perceived health benefits (it’s used to treat fatigue, kidney disease and low sex-drive).
Caterpillar fungus was relatively affordable in the past, but the commercialization and increased demand in recent decades, especially due to its popularity in traditional Chinese medicine, has made it the most expensive edible mushroom in the world. Yes, it’s more expensive than white truffles.
Caterpillar fungus grows naturally in the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayan region. Historically, it was collected by local communities, who recognized its medicinal properties and utilized it as a part of their traditional healthcare practices. But the increased demand for the product, the scarcity and unique growth conditions required for the caterpillar fungus contribute to its current stratospheric price.
2. Caviar | From cheap treat to one of the most expensive foods in the world
Three hundred years ago, caviar had a completely different reputation than it does today. It was incredibly cheap, often served as a complimentary accompaniment with drinks in saloons, which cleverly boosted sales and increased its popularity.
At that time, caviar was considered a byproduct of the highly prized sturgeon, which commanded a premium price. In fact, it was exported to Europe from America for as little as $1.00 per pound. However, the early 1900s marked a turning point for American sturgeon populations, as they faced endangerment due to overfishing and the negative impacts of the industrial revolution.
The construction of industrial infrastructure, such as dams and blockages, disrupted traditional spawning routes and further contributed to sturgeon’s decline. Additionally, rivers became polluted with industrial waste, exacerbating the challenges faced by these magnificent fish.
As the supply of sturgeon collapsed over time, the price of caviar skyrocketed. This led to sturgeon caviar becoming an exclusive and luxurious food item accessible only to the affluent and renowned.
Today, authentic, high-quality caviar commands a significant price due to its limited supply, intricate harvesting and processing methods, and the strict regulations governing sturgeon fishing and caviar production.
The most expensive caviar in the world can cost as much as $500 per teaspoon, though the cost of caviar varies greatly, influenced by factors such as the species of fish, the quality of the roe, and market demand.
3. Sushi | From working-class street food to Michelin Guide fame
In its early days, sushi was primarily a street food consumed by the working class of Japan. It was a quick and convenient meal that provided nourishment for laborers and travelers.
However, as sushi gained popularity and spread beyond Japan’s borders, perceptions of it began to change, and with that, so did its price. In the mid-20th century, sushi began to be recognized as a refined and elegant cuisine, particularly in Western countries. This shift led to an increase in demand for high-quality ingredients and skilled sushi chefs, which ultimately impacted the price of sushi.
Today, while it is still possible to find affordable sushi options, particularly in casual or fast-food establishments, premium sushi has made its way into some of the most expensive restaurants in the world: a meal at the famed Japanese restaurant Masa in NYC costs at $950 per person (without taxes).
While sushi was substantially more accessible and affordable in the past, its transformation into a globally celebrated culinary art has led to its reputation as a higher-priced dining choice in many parts of the world.
4. Wagyu Beef | From inferior to “foreign” cattle breeds to the most expensive steak in the world
Wagyu is by far the most expensive cattle breed worldwide, and a cut of A5 Kobe Wagyu is the most expensive steak in the world.
But wagyu beef was not always so expensive. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century it was considered inferior to imported cattle breeds from the US and Europe.
In Japan, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, foreign cattle were imported, leading, between 1900 and 1910, to extensive cross-breeding with native Japanese stock. These hybrids were registered as “Improved Japanese Cattle“.
In 1944, four breeds of wagyu cattle were officially recognized: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn. Among these breeds, the Japanese Black, specifically the Tajima strain, was the most dominant, representing approximately 90% of overall population.
Wagyu and specifically Kobe Wagyu beef gained global popularity during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1983, the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was established to define and promote the Kobe beef trademark, setting specific standards for labeling cattle as Kobe beef. While wagyu beef is of outstanding quality, this is also a marketing success story.
5. Lobster | From lowly food for the poor to one of the most expensive seafoods
In the annals of culinary history, few stories are as fascinating as the transformation of the lobster from a lowly food for the impoverished to a prestigious seafood delicacy. In the early days of the New world, lobsters were so abundant along the coasts that they were often seen as nothing more than a commonplace resource.
In fact, they were even served to prisoners and indentured servants, with some accounts referred to them as “cockroaches of the sea.”
However, as time passed, an increasing demand for lobster, coupled with factors such as overfishing and habitat degradation, led to a decline in availability. As scarcity set in, an intriguing reversal occurred. Lobster, once deemed a meager sustenance, began its ascent to gourmet status.
Today, lobster is synonymous with indulgence and elegance, gracing the menus of high-end restaurants and commanding premium prices in seafood markets worldwide. Lobster now counts among the most expensive seafood in the world.
The lobster’s journey from poverty to prosperity serves as a testament to the ever-shifting dynamics of the culinary world, where the allure of scarcity and exclusivity can elevate even the most unassuming of foods to the pinnacle of luxury.
It’s price varies significantly depending on several factors. Firstly, geographical location plays a crucial role. Lobster harvested from coastal areas near fishing communities tends to be more affordable compared to inland regions, where transportation costs increase the overall price.
Additionally, the seasonality of lobster fishing affects its cost, with prices typically being higher during peak demand periods.
The size and weight of the lobster also impact its price, as larger specimens command a higher value due to the increased meat yield. Moreover, the method of capture can influence the price, with lobsters caught using sustainable practices often being priced at a premium.
6. Foie Gras | From the Jewish ghettos to gourmet food status
Foie gras, a delicacy made from the fattened liver of ducks or geese, has a long and controversial history. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where the practice of force-feeding waterfowl was established.
During medieval times, foie gras played a significant role in Jewish peasant cuisine, serving as an affordable source of kosher fat. It held a prominent place in their culinary traditions.
However, as the Renaissance unfolded, a notable shift occurred. Foie gras gradually transformed from a humble staple to a highly regarded delicacy, coveted by the wealthy. So sought-after was this prized food item that affluent individuals would dispatch their servants to the Jewish ghettos of Rome in search of foie gras.
The transition from inexpensive kosher fat to an exclusive epicurean delight reflects the changing perception and value of foie gras over time.
However, its production methods, notably the force-feeding process known as gavage, have been the subject of ethical debates and animal welfare concerns. As awareness has grown, regulations and restrictions began to be introduced in many countries.
This, coupled with the limited availability and time-consuming nature of foie gras production, has contributed to its high price. Today, foie gras is considered a gourmet indulgence and commands a premium price, reflecting its unique flavor, intricate preparation, and the controversies surrounding its production.
7. White Salmon
White salmon, also known as ivory salmon or ivory king salmon, has an intriguing history and is regarded as a prized delicacy in the world of seafood. Unlike its more common counterpart, the pink or red salmon, white salmon has a unique pale flesh color that is highly sought after for its distinct flavor and texture.
The origins of white salmon can be traced back to the Pacific Northwest of North America, particularly in the region of Alaska.
In the past, white salmon was not as widely recognized or valued as it is today. It was often considered an anomaly or an oddity due to its rare appearance. Commercial fishing operations primarily targeted the more abundant pink and red salmon species, leaving white salmon largely overlooked. As a result, white salmon was relatively inexpensive and less prevalent in the seafood market.
However, over time, as culinary tastes and preferences evolved, the demand for white salmon grew. Chefs and seafood connoisseurs began to appreciate its delicate and buttery flavor, as well as its unique appearance on the plate. As demand increased, so did the price of white salmon. Today, white salmon is considered a premium seafood item and commands a higher price compared to other salmon varieties.
8. Oysters | From humble snack to luxury restaurants
Oysters, once a humble bar snack handed out for free, have transformed into a luxury food over the past two centuries. With a history dating back millions of years, humans have been enjoying these shellfish for centuries.
The cultivation of oysters was pioneered by Sergius Orata, a Roman engineer known for his invention of underfloor heating. Since then, oyster farming has become a thriving industry. However, it was during the 19th century that the popularity of oysters skyrocketed.
Oysters were sold as street food in major cities such as London, Paris, and New York, making them an affordable and accessible snack for many. Unfortunately, the rapid increase in popularity brought forth a host of problems.
Industrialization and extensive dredging of waters led to overfishing, while coastal areas experienced sewage dumping due to population growth. These factors resulted in outbreaks of diseases, such as typhoid, prompting the closure of many oyster beds. Additionally, harsh winters and the emergence of new diseases further decimated native oyster populations and tainted their reputation for years to come.
Child labor was a prevailing factor in sustaining the affordability of oysters during the early 20th century. Regrettably, young children were frequently engaged in arduous tasks such as tirelessly shucking copious amounts of oysters day in and day out. However, as society advanced and its consciousness regarding ethical practices heightened, a profound change ensued.
This shift ultimately resulted in the eradication of child labor within the oyster industry. Such a transformation underscores the evolving comprehension of the significance of humane and sustainable approaches, guaranteeing that oysters are cultivated responsibly and in an ethical manner.
Ensuring environmentally sustainable and ethical practices in oyster production has come with a cost. The meticulous care required to cultivate oysters has led to an increase in their price over time. Today, the environment in which oysters are grown holds significant importance, emphasizing the understanding of the vital role clean water plays in their development.
The cost of oysters can vary depending on various factors such as the type of oyster, its origin, size, and the market or restaurant where they are purchased. Generally, oysters are considered a premium seafood and are often priced accordingly. The most expensive are the Coffin Bay King Oysters, which can cost up to $380 per pound.
9. Snails | ~$30 / pound
Snails were quite abundant and affordable in the past, but are now considered a delicacy in many kitchens around the world such as Greek, Catalan and French cuisines. The meat of certain species of land snails, such as the Burgundy snail, is highly prized for its unique flavor and tender texture.
Snails are often prepared by cooking them with garlic butter and herbs, and serving them as an appetizer or main course. Their status as a delicacy stems from their distinctive taste, as well as the skill and effort required to gather, prepare, and serve them.
The price of snails can vary depending on several factors, including the type and quality of the snail, its availability, the region, and market demand. In general, commercially sold snails can range in price from a few dollars per pound to upwards of $30 per pound or more.
10. Monkfish | ~$25 / pound
Monkfish has a rich and intriguing history. This unique fish species, also known as anglerfish, has been a part of culinary traditions for centuries. In the past, monkfish was often overlooked and considered unappealing due to its intimidating appearance and unusual anatomy. In fact, at one point, it was even banned from French fish markets.
However, the discovery of the delectable meat hidden within its tail led to a transformation in its reputation. Chefs realized that the firm texture and delicate flavor of monkfish closely resembled that of lobster, earning it the moniker “poor man’s lobster.” This revelation sparked a surge in popularity and demand for monkfish, elevating it to a prized ingredient in gourmet cuisine.
Today, monkfish continues to captivate the palates of food enthusiasts, showcasing the remarkable journey from a disregarded fish to a celebrated delicacy.
As tastes and food preferences evolve, so do the dishes and ingredients we hold in high regard. While the price tag of these culinary treasures is steep, their allure and cultural significance continue to captivate food enthusiasts and gourmets around the globe. And for good reasons as they are simply delicious!