Oct
05

The Temptation of Soft-Yolk Abalone

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Foodie Yau An internet food critic, a devoted travel writer & gourmet writer to boot. For the past 2 decades, be it a 5 star hotel or street food, he has always been willing to try anything, as long as it tastes good.

Translation by Wai Lam Cheung / Photos by Cheng Qun

For the four treasures in Chinese cuisine (abalone, sea cucumber, shark fin, and fish maw), abalone always comes first, which shall explain the importance of abalone in the minds of foodies.

Why a Delicacy?

Abalone isn’t really a rare ingredient. It can be found in almost oceans all around the world, such as China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Mexico, Africa, Indian and the Middle East. Besides wild abalone, they can also be farmed. Then, how does it become such a delicacy in Chinese cuisine?

Even for the same breed, water temperature, flow rate and microorganism in the living environment can definitely change the taste and texture of abalone. Abalone also has a comparatively long lifespan; if it comes from a cold-water environment, its lifespan could be even longer, but its aromatic taste will, therefore, be enhanced.

Abalones

Photo 1 - Abalones in such big sizes (tou) are very especially rare.

Photo 2 - “Jiu-shui” dried abalone (right) is often covered with tiny frost of salt, darker in color, and richer in taste. It is also lighter in weight because of the long storage time and dyhydration.

Photo 3 - The two tilted ends give the Japanese ji-pin breed of abalone the shape of a golden ingot.

Dried and Fresh Abalone

Among the four different kinds of abalone, Japanese dried abalone, bearing the brand “Golden Crown” and “Crown”, is the most delicate; Australian green abalone (Haliotis australis) is the best among the previous frozen ones, while black abalone (Haliotis rubra) is the runner-up. With the great variety of canned abalone available in the market, the Mexican Calmex canned abalone is rather popular, often used in home cooking or served in slices at banquets. For the fresh abalone available in Vancouver, which is best served raw (sashimi style) or scalded in boiling water in order to preserve its natural fresh and sweetness, most of them belong to the Mexican Red breed, coming from abalone farms in California. On the other hand, the Taiwanese favorite kind of jiu-kong abalone (Haliotis diversicolor) is also a fresh abalone that is small in size.

Complex Preparation

Dried abalone has the richest taste and after-taste among the different kinds of abalone. If consuming fresh abalone can be compared to the refreshing feeling of drinking a beer, dried abalone is just like the mind-lingering taste of a vintage red. There is also a huge price difference between fresh abalone and dried abalone. Dried abalone requires a much longer preparation to process: each abalone has to be hang-dried, salted, boiled, smelted, and hang-dried again. After this complex preparation process, the size of the finished product will be much smaller than its original form. At retail, abalone is purchased by weight, and the measurement of each individual abalone is by “heads” (tou), which the bigger in size means the lesser in the number “heads”.

Japanese Abalone Masters

The three best kinds of dried abalone: wang-bao, ji-pin, and wo-ma, all come from the hands of Japanese masters. The Japanese tradition of making dried abalone dates back to the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD). Back in history, Japanese referred to abalone as “winding spiral shells” (wei-luo), while the Chinese called them the “wei” fish (wei-yu). Well-known Chinese poet Su Dongpo rhymes about the delicious taste of abalone in his poem “Song of Wei Fish” as “Wei-luo arrives in ships from the eastern oceans / abundant delicacies from abroad”.

The uncontaminated water of Aomori, Japan, produces the best and biggest kind of dried “wang-bao” abalone. It comes in an oval shape and a netted pattern in their cross-sections. The exceptional freshness and rich flavor of Aomori dried abalone also comes from its large and thick body. This specific kind of large-sized wang-bao abalone requires over than ten years to be fully bred. Given the high demand from Asian markets, those measured as “one head” (tou) is almost impossible to find, while the “two or three headed” ones are especially rare.

The ji-pin breed of Japanese dried abalone comes from the Iwate County. It is also the easiest to be recognized. Its shape, with both ends tilted upwards, is very similar to the gold and silver ingots, which were used as a form of money in ancient China. Ji-pin abalone has a soft and chewy texture and also, rich in flavor. The wo-ma abalone, from the Oma region in Japan, is comparatively smaller in size, but its rich flavor is comparable to the wang-bao breed. It can be easily recognized by the two tiny holes at each end of the body, which are used to hold a string through so that it could be properly hang-dried.

Photo 4 - Master of Abalone Chef Yeung Koon Yat once visited Vancouver and showcased his skills, alongside with Chef Tony Ho, at Sea Harbour Restaurant.

Photo 5 - In terms of Chinese culinary art, Chef Tony Ho believes that traditions should be a priority, while modifying recipe to meet today’s need is also applicable to creating abalone dishes.

Photo 6 - Tony’s Abalone - Abalone should be sliced vertically, parallel to its vein and fiber, and then slightly dipped into brown sauce on the plate. Garnishes should also be kept simple, such as sea cucumber, duck feet, or Chinese mushroom. (photo by Sea Harbour Restaurant)

Chinese Masters in Cooking Abalone

Although the Japanese are at best with hang drying and processing dried abalone, Chinese are still the masters in turning abalone into delicious dishes. The award-winning, world-renowned Chef Yeung Koon Yat, from Forum Restaurant in Hong Kong, has always been associated with Chinese abalone dishes. He is at best with turning the Japanese ji-pin abalone into his own signature dish – Ah Yat Abalone. Chef Tony Ho, from Sea Harbour Restaurant in Richmond, is one of Chef Yeung’s favorite disciples. He invited Chef Yeung to visit Vancouver twice and to showcase his abalone-cooking skills in front of local foodies.

Chef Tony Ho shares his abalone-cooking experience, “in terms of Chinese culinary techniques, one should first pay respect to traditions and then, adjust recipes according to the current trend, and shall not be overwhelmed by the question of authenticity. Master Yeung (Koon Yat)’s well-respected reputation in the industry is also built upon his willingness to adjust his abalone recipes to this ever-changing world, which his effort is inspiring to other fellow chefs as well. As people are more concerned with healthy eating, we have to find alternatives for traditional side-ingredients, such as pork belly and chicken skin, to make abalone dishes more suitable to current demand."

Remarkable Taste of Soft-Yolk Abalone

The taste of “soft-yolk” is the key to enjoy dried abalone. It refers to the gluey, delicate, and half-liquid texture right at the centre of the abalone, which also contrasts with the soft and chewy taste at the sides of abalone. Chef Tony Ho believes the abalone’s place of origin, hang-dry technique, storage time, and slow-cooking method are all determining factors to whether the abalone becomes “soft-yolk” or not. “Dried abalone should be stored in either a low temperature (eg. fridge) or a well-ventilated environment. After some significant storage time and dehydration, the dried abalone will take on a darker color, in which tiny frost of salt will appear on its surface. Comparable to vintage wine, the rich taste and “soft-yolk” texture of this delicate “jiu-shui” (old water) dried abalone is without rival.”

Preparing dried abalone is a delicate and attentive process. It varies depending on the size and thickness of each abalone, and whether it belongs to the “jiu-shui” kind. First, the abalone should be soaked in water for six to ten hours. Then, inside a ceramic pot with a cook-safe bamboo mat placed at the bottom, spare-ribs, abalone, and aged chicken are added in a specific order and cooked together for eight to fifteen hours.

Chef Ho describes the key to this step in making abalone is, first, to boiled everything under high heat, and turn the heat down soon after. This will allow the abalone to be cooked with remaining heat inside the ceramic pot. “If high heat is used throughout the entire process, that will washes away the taste and nutrients of abalones, and also causes cracks to appear on the abalones’ surface and damages the presentation.” To prepare the bigger dried abalones with sizes between “six to eight heads”, they should be kept inside the pot overnight, after being initially cooked. Then, in the next day, boiled in light soup again for another eight hours.

Given the importance of wine-pairing to consuming fine food, Chef Ho recommends fresh abalone to be paired with a light and refreshing white wine, or even sparkling, but white wine with either a fruity or smoky taste should be avoided. As dried abalone, especially the “jiu-shui” kind, red wine would be a perfect match.

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High Nutritious Value of Abalone

Abalone doesn’t only satisfy foodies’ crave for its delicious taste; it fits into the standards of Chinese dietary therapy. Abalone is high in protein and has a significant amount of vitamin A, B, C and D. From the Chinese medicine perspective, it enhances human body functions, especially for the lung, liver, and stomach. Its shell is also used as a form of Chinese medicine for eye diseases.

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Abalone from BC

Along the Baja California sea area from the Pacific Ocean to Alaska, seven to eight kinds of abalone could be found, such as red abalone, black abalone, green abalone, white abalone, and pink abalone. The pristine sand and cold water around BC is also a good nurturing environment for abalone. An aged Chinese immigrant once recalled the remarkably fresh taste of local abalone, which is perfect for making long-boiled soup. However, harvesting local abalone has been banned, due to their long and slow living cycle and excessive harvesting.

Another way to enjoy local abalone is at C Restaurant. They serve wild pinto abalone from the Bamfield Huu-ay-abt First Nation Community Abalone Project (BHCAP) at Vancovuer Island. As a founding restaurant partner of the Vancouver Aquarium’s OceanWise Program and its mission for being eco-friendly, C Restaurant is also the only restaurant to legally source this rare ingredient, while serving this specific kind of local abalone is also a form of financial aid to this abalone project, and to bring awareness to this local, sustainable seafood.

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Appreciation for Abalone in history

Besides ancient Chinese poet Su Dongpo’s “Song of Wei Fish,” other historical figures, such as Wang Mang (founder of the Xin dynasty, 33BC – 23AD) and Cao Cao (one of the most celebrated warlords from Romance of the Three Kingdoms) had openly expressed their appreciation for abalone. However, why would Confucius once referred to abalone as, “long exposure to the company of abalone / the awful smell doesn’t go away easily?” This story dates back to the death of the Qin Shi-huang emperor. Without spreading the news of the emperor’s death, Prime Minister Li Si transported the emperor’s body under a pile of salted fish in order to cover up the smell, but due to the similarity in their names, people had confused that kind of salted fish with abalone that we treasure today.

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