CATCH OF THE DAY
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