With her young trading company, the musician Lina Karam, who lives in Zurich, builds a bridge between two homes – and to her own childhood.
Homesickness nests in the heart, but its most direct route is through the palate: “I have a longing for the people of Iran – and for the food,” says Lina Karam Dor Abadi. Her childhood memories are shaped by the Ghormeh Sabzi stew, which contains meat of your choice, red beans, dried limes and lots of herbs. “Everyone in Iran loves it, it tastes amazing, and of course it’s best when grandmothers or moms cook it,” says the musician, who was born in Tehran in 1986.
Karam came to Switzerland 15 years ago, just past his teenage years. Today she has dual citizenship and builds a bridge between her two homes, these two worlds – and thus also the link to her own childhood: In 2019 she founded the company Imperium Caviar with her business partner Romain Hintermann, a Zurich Islamic scholar with a passion for the Middle East & Swisspica founded. “Spica” is Latin for saffron, the spice that, together with turmeric, characterizes Persian cuisine like no other. With him began the history of the import company based in Zurich-Wiedikon, which is also intended to be a showcase for Persian culture.
anchored in the culture
Iran is one of the largest saffron producers, and the Khorasan region in the northeast offers the best conditions. In the north, on the Caspian Sea, the sturgeon also has a great tradition – and so it was obvious to expand the company’s business area to include the exclusive roe of these animals. Especially since the Karams also have their roots there: the grandfather once jumped off bridges into the water to catch wild sturgeon fish when this was still allowed.
Her father also grew up by the sea with this natural gift, which is deeply rooted in Persian culture. Now he is the intermediary and guarantor for his daughter’s trade and is in contact with the producers whose best goods he exports. In addition, the small company has its own aquaculture, which tests the most natural possible production and, for example, examines the influence of different water depths on the quality, with scientific support from a dedicated marine biologist. The spawn comes from sturgeon fish that are at least twelve years old and their life ends when they are harvested.
And little by little the range is expanding: the saffron supplier recommended a friend who grows pistachios in the sandy south of the country and who in turn knew someone who grows olives in the Sahara. Soon the company will also import pure rice from a producer on the Caspian Sea, where geese and ducks from Russia clean the water and eat the worms as winter guests.
In her homeland, Lina Karam had attended a music-oriented high school. Her great wish to study at a conservatory was not fulfilled in Germany, so her uncle, who lives in Amriswil in Thurgau, advised her to try Switzerland. She moved in with him, received a scholarship in Zurich and completed her studies. Today she works here as a music teacher and as a chamber music violist in addition to her role as a businesswoman.
Today her company’s range includes half a dozen different specialities, mostly organic, certified by the Swiss bio.inspecta, which has a branch in Iran. Karam points out that although the country has been severely affected by drought for decades and lakes and rivers are disappearing, until recently global warming and nature conservation were not considered to be particularly relevant issues. She is now all the more enthusiastic about how her compatriots produce sustainable products under the most difficult circumstances.
The pressure on margins and competition in gastronomy and wholesale is enormous in this country, olives from Spain are on the market at a kilo price of 50 centimes. But Karam is delighted with the course of business, which neither the Corona nor the Ukraine crisis slowed down. Recently there is one Online shop, but a strong sales channel leads directly to top gastronomy. A main partner is the St. Moritz five-star hotel Suvretta House, whose chef Fabrizio Zanetti, in addition to saffron and date balsamic vinegar, also purchases caviar from her, albeit mainly the Osietra variety from China. However, the Iranian beluga from the sturgeon of the same name makes him rave: “In a hotel in our category, many guests expect luxury products such as caviar, the origin of which is Persia,” he says on the phone.
Imperium Caviar is now the main importer of Iranian caviar in Switzerland, which the company also uses as a hub for further exports, for example to Monaco. Over 100 kilograms of the mild, buttery Beluga were sold last winter alone, at an attractive price of less than 5,000 francs per kilo. Incidentally, the main competition does not come from Russia, which hardly exports caviar, as Karam explains: “The Russian tsars already noticed that Persian caviar is better and imported it.” She is not the only one who is convinced of the superior taste compared to Osietra, with the reproducible uniformity of which China has been dominating not only the Swiss market for years.
“Anyone who thinks that we would sell a luxury product in order to live in luxury ourselves is doubly mistaken,” the young entrepreneur clarifies. “Firstly, caviar is part of everyday life for fishermen and people in Iran in Iran, secondly, money is not the main focus of our business. We want to make a difference, namely do something for the country and its people.” Not only does she use the knowledge and connections of her family, she also has everything made in Iran, from the website to the design: “We have created jobs, ten jobs alone in our caviar farm, which we built from a fairly run-down operation ‘ she notes. “And some of the villages from which we source products were almost extinct after decades of emigration. Life has returned there now.”
The difficult way
The language of music is universal, but Zurich is a tough place for newcomers looking for contacts: the woman in her mid-thirties, who is married to a Spaniard, remembers Karam’s first years in Switzerland as lonely, and her Swiss circle of acquaintances is still not large. It can’t be the language – she has mastered the German that she first came into contact with during her studies in an amazingly comprehensive manner: “The music history lecturer spoke like a radio, without periods or commas, I didn’t understand a word at first and wanted to just get out of here,” she recalls. She fought her way through and stayed.
She describes her Iranian origin as a bass that constantly resonates: “That always gave me the pulse that connects me with my compatriots living in Switzerland. Many of them are in high positions, we also share this strong will to pull something, the urge to move forward. And with passion everything is possible.» She herself exudes this passion in conversation without letting the horses run away with her. Her dark eyes rest, she likes to talk with her hands, for example when she raves about the lingering scent of her saffron.
The following applies to both saffron and caviar: the terroir determines taste and texture. Or in Karam’s words, not entirely free of pathos: “Our products tell stories: They carry the power of the earth and the rays of the sun as well as the will of the people and their love for nature.” She and her business partner have set themselves the goal of countering Iran’s external image, which is characterized by negative political headlines, with the positive power of Persian culture. This is also what the Lineh association they founded, into which a good part of their trading income goes: It builds international and cultural bridges in Zurich and supports children and families here and there.