Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

The amazing abalone.

 

2-3Introducing … the abalone. Heard of it? Do you even know what it looks like? Well, before we give you the details about how to prepare and cook them in delicious recipes, let’s first tell you a bit about them.

      The abalone is a snail that belongs to the phylum mollusca (a group which includes clams, scallops, sea slugs, octopus and squid) and is part of the Haliotidae family. Depending on which country you’re from, you’ll know it by several other names, including ear-shells or sea-ears. In Australia they’re known as muttonfish, in Great Britain they are ormer, while in South Africa they are called perlemoen or venus’ ears. The various species come in different sizes starting from 20mm but rarely going over 200mm. From smallest to largest, there are black, green, pink and red abalone.

      The inside of the shell has a spiral structure and the inner layer is made of strikingly beautiful mother-of-pearl which, of course, makes the shells themselves very attractive to use decoratively or as jewellery. The shell is made up of layers of calcium carbonate and proteins which make it incredibly strong.

      Inside is a soft edible body surrounded by a mantle, an anterior head and a large muscular foot. It has no obvious brain structure, but does have a heart and blood which flows through arteries and veins, assisted by the surrounding muscles. The foot is used to clamp them tightly to rocky surfaces, although their main predator, the otter, has mastered the art of removing them for daily snacks.

       The abalone, along with many other species, is fast becoming one of the ocean’s most endangered creatures. They have been fished, often illegally, at a rapidly increasing rate since the late 20th century in order to feed demand in Asia. Regulations do exist to protect them, but because they bring in such high prices, these are often ignored.

       Because stocks in the wild are declining rapidly, China, Taiwan, Japan and several other countries, have begun farming abalone. Others, such as Australia, Chile, Iceland, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, and the United States are still developing significant aquaculture industries.

      Phuket Abalone Farm Co. Ltd. is Thailand's first and only fully integrated abalone farm. The main species of abalone raised at the farm is Haliotis diversicolor, also known as the Taiwan abalone. This company is serious about doing their bit to prevent the extinction of this interesting little snail.

       Okay, so now you know what we’re talking about, let’s get to the interesting bit. How do you eat it?

      It is not the body of the abalone, but the large, chewy, muscular foot that is eaten. It can be served raw, grilled, fried in batter or slow cooked. It is available canned, but of course fresh abalone is tastier (and more expensive). Nutritionally, it is rich is omega 3 fatty acids, iodine, iron and vitamin B. Its total fat content is similar to poultry or meat. It is a good source of magnesium, also essential for the production of sexual hormones, and contains B12 vitamins which can be helpful in raising metabolism.

         To extract the flesh, open the piece between the abalone meat and the shell by working a wooden spatula between the non-attached flesh and the shell until you reach the muscle that’s attached to the shell. Work the spatula around and along between the muscle and the shell until the abalone detaches.

         In Chinese cooking, abalone is normally stewed with meat such as ham or roasted goose. The cooking process is long and tedious as it is soaked, cooked, boiled, rinsed and then finally stewed. In Japanese culture, it is usually cooked by sake steaming.

         To enjoy tender abalone steaks, you need to pound them … gently - the thinner the better. Pounding breaks down the meat fibres making it easier to chew. Abalone is at its most tender when it is either braised slow and low or cooked quickly over high heat.

         To bread and sauté them, lightly season breadcrumbs or flour with a dash of lemon, pepper, onion powder (which apparently goes very well with abalone) and allspice. Dip in beaten egg, then in the seasoned mixture, before placing in a sauté pan with good dollop of melted butter. Cook for 45 seconds on each side - quick, easy and delicious. They can also be slow-cooked in a medium oven for up to four hours, in chicken broth with oxtail and fennel. Make sure it doesn’t boil or the abalone will toughen.

         So, not only is abalone a tasty food but its striking iridescent shells have been used in carvings and in the making of jewellery for centuries. The shell displays iridescent colours reminiscent of the ocean in blues, greens, aquas and purples. It is often used alongside precious gemstones not only for its look but also for supposed healing properties.

         Because of its flattened, oval shape, it was used by the American Indians as a natural vessel for cleansing, offerings and prayers. A disc of abalone shell is worn on the forehead of Apache girls as they greet the sun on the morning of their initiation into womanhood.

         In Chinese homeopathy, the shell is often ground to powder and used as an aphrodisiac boost. Across the Far East, people believe it is good luck to eat abalone, but to the rest of the world, it is the flavour, which has been described as richer than scallops and with a firm texture similar to calamari, which is the draw

         So all in all, this small, seemingly insignificant sea snail is clearly, more than just a pretty face. If you haven’t yet tried it, get yourself out there and give it a try.

         

Colleen Setchell


 


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