On the Chi­nese table, the abalone is prized above all


On the Chi­nese table, the abalone is prized above all

The West may ex­tol the culi­nary virtues of caviar and truf­fle, but for the Chi­nese kitchen, there are few things more lux­u­ri­ous and cov­eted than lus­cious lobes of abalone.

Of­ten eaten dur­ing Chi­nese New Year as a sym­bol of wealth and pros­per­ity, abalone comes wild and farmed, in var­i­ous shapes and sizes, and from all over the world—from the shal­low waters of New Zealand where they are known as paua to the coasts of South Africa. This mol­lusc is in all essence a sea snail, yet nu­tri­tiously high in Omega-3 fatty acids, vi­ta­mins and min­er­als, and a gourmet’s dream in its var­i­ous in­car­na­tions. Un­like most foods, the dried ver­sion is more highly prized than the fresh abalone as its flavour is far more in­tense and con­cen­trated, with a firmer, slightly sticky tex­ture when cooked. Ac­cord­ingly, pre­mium dried abalones are nick­named “Candy Heart”.

Farms em­ploy dif­fer­ent meth­ods of dry­ing the abalone once they are har­vested. In Tas­ma­nia, one of Aus­tralia’s key abalone-pro­duc­ing states, for in­stance, pro­duc­ers such as Candy Abalone shuck, hand­wash and treat their wild-caught abalone be­fore dry­ing them on racks or hang­ing them on strings for vary­ing lengths of time. The skill in­volved for dried abalone doesn’t end with pro­duc­ing it; cook­ing it re­quires ten­der lov­ing care as well, from soak­ing them overnight to cook­ing them in a broth en­riched with in­gre­di­ents such as pork, chicken and chicken feet.

When it comes to abalone, Chef Lee

Chi­ang Howe’s ex­per­tise is un­par­al­leled. The third-gen­er­a­tion owner of her­itage restau­rant Teochew Restau­rant Huat Kee has trav­elled the world in search of the best abalone, form­ing part­ner­ships with abalone farm­ers from Aus­tralia, New Zealand and South Africa. He launched a busi­ness for ready-to-eat pre­mium seafood in 2005 un­der the ‘HAOS’ brand, start­ing with dried abalone, then fresh abalone and fish maw. Its prod­ucts such as Aus­tralian Candy Heart Dried Abalone un­dergo a ster­il­i­sa­tion process known as re­tort pack­ag­ing, so that they are ready to eat or served up eas­ily af­ter im­mers­ing the pouch in hot wa­ter for 15 min­utes.

We check in with Chef Lee for an in­tro­duc­tion to all things abalone.

What’s the back­story to the dif­fer­ent types of abalone?

Dur­ing the 17th cen­tury, as tech­nol­ogy was not ad­vanced and fridges were not in­vented yet, abalone had to be dried in or­der to be trans­ported. In 1957, due to the abun­dance of abalone glob­ally, abalone was canned and the first can of abalone made was by Calmex. Frozen and fresh abalone came about in the 1980s be­cause mer­chants in South­east Asia started trav­el­ling and brought back abalone from Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

In the 1990s, when air trans­porta­tion was more af­ford­able, live abalone was in­tro­duced. For live or fresh abalone, you can have it sashimi-style. For canned abalone, most peo­ple use it for steam­boats and hot­pots—which is why canned abalone is so pop­u­lar dur­ing the Chi­nese New Year pe­riod!

What are some tips we should bear in mind when buy­ing abalone?

When choos­ing canned abalone, find out where it is from. You can look for the coun­try bar­code

to dou­ble-check if the abalone’s coun­try of ori­gin is truly as stated on its la­bel. For ex­am­ple, if a can of abalone claims to come from Aus­tralia, it should have an Aus­tralian bar­code on the can. Also look out for the drained weight of abalone— how much meat weight ver­sus wa­ter?

Take note as to whether it is wild or farmed abalone as they would have dif­fer­ent tex­tures. The wild abalone that are lo­cated near the sur­face of the waters tend to be stronger and firmer than farmed abalone as they need to cling onto the rocks to avoid be­ing washed away by the waves.

When choos­ing dried abalone, find out the coun­try of ori­gin be­cause dif­fer­ent dry­ing tech­niques are used in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Dif­fer­ent species of abalone also have dif­fer­ent tex­tures. In gen­eral, the smell should be pleas­ant and the shape should be nice and plump.

What are some fac­tors de­ter­min­ing the qual­ity of farmed abalone?

The con­di­tions of the wa­ter, tem­per­a­ture the abalone is bred in, the com­po­si­tion of the abalone feed and the abalone species all af­fect the qual­ity of the abalone.

Af­ter trav­el­ling to abalone farms around the world, we fell in love with farm­ing tech­niques from Chile and South Africa. They have very ad­vanced and sys­tem­atic farm­ing tech­niques that we hope to learn from and im­ple­ment in our own pro­cesses. There is neg­li­gi­ble cross­breed­ing be­tween the dif­fer­ent abalone species, and the con­di­tions of the farms are very good. For ex­am­ple, the am­bi­ent tem­per­a­tures are kept con­trolled so that it is op­ti­mal for the abalone.

How is HAOS’ ready-to-eat abalone pro­cessed?

Abalone is shucked fresh from their shells, cooked and in­fused with our sauce. We then put them in re­tort pouches and vac­uum pack them. The vac­uum ensures that oxy­gen is sucked out prior to seal­ing. The pouch keeps food fresh and pro­longs shelf life. There­after, we ster­ilise the abalone at ex­tremely high tem­per­a­tures, ren­der­ing the prod­uct com­pletely com­mer­cially ster­ile. Thus, there is no need for preser­va­tives to be used.

How do you like to pre­pare your dried abalone?

There is no one best way to cook dried abalone as there are hun­dreds of abalone species. Every coun­try and every farmer has dif­fer­ent ways to dry abalone, thus it is chal­leng­ing to only have one for­mula to cook abalone.

Our phi­los­o­phy is to bring out the taste of abalone and the dif­fer­ent taste and tex­ture for the dif­fer­ent species. We use pure abalone sauce and do not mix them with other in­gre­di­ents such as oys­ters.

What are some un­usual va­ri­eties of abalone that few peo­ple may have tried?

Few peo­ple have seen black abalone (paua) from New Zealand. Usu­ally, when it is ex­ported, it has been bleached. Some con­sumers may be put off by the colour of the prod­uct, and it might take some ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, we rec­om­mend eat­ing it as it is, be­cause it has a strong sea­weed flavour that can­not be found in other abalone from other parts of the world.

Any un­usual drink pair­ings that go well with abalone?

The say­ing usu­ally goes: “White wine for white meat, and red wine for red meat”. How­ever, we find that Bur­gundy wine pairs very well with dried abalone.

Braised abalone is a clas­sic Chi­nese favourite

Aus­tralian green­lip abalone

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