Foodstuff: Dried Scallops (Conpoy)
Drying various foodstuffs very much tends to concentrate their flavors and this is just as true with scallops as it is with shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes, or anything else you can care to name. Dried scallops, even more so than the fresh, are quite extensively used in Chinese cookery, particularly in Hong Kong and the southern coastal provinces, but I don’t see them much used in other cuisines, which is a bit of a shame, really, as they are a very useful ingredient. Certainly, anyone with an interest in cooking Chinese dishes will want to have a stock of these on hand but they are also well worth experimenting with in other culinary preparations as they pack a unique flavor punch that is truly exquisite…
You may sometimes see dried scallops referred to as ‘Conpoy’ in cookery books. This is the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese characters ‘乾貝’, which are pronounced ‘gānbèi’ in Mandarin. Conpoy don’t appear often in dishes in westernized Chinese restaurants, but in those with traditional Chinese preparations you may come across them referred to on the menu as ‘瑤柱’ or ‘瑶柱’. These characters actually stumped me in the past as they translate to ‘Jade Pillars’, which, while somewhat poetically descriptive, I suppose, don’t actually suggest the article in question.
Appearance and Taste
The scallops you see in the first picture are some that my wife brought home from a recent trip to Vancouver. They are medium sized but, as you can see below, they can be purchased in a variety of sizes:
The largest ones I currently have on hand are about an inch across in greatest diameter, but I have seen some that are even larger than that. The smaller ones are useful when used whole in soups and the like, but I especially favor the medium sized ones as being the most versatile.
Here you can see the different sizes in a bit more of a close-up shot… Some conpoy can be very dry while others, particularly the smaller ones, can have a much higher moisture content and possess a supple springiness to their texture. For storage, I like to keep all the different types in the fridge but the drier ones can actually be kept on the shelf in a cool, dark place as well. Eventually however, the flavor will fade and about a year is about the longest I would attempt to keep them.
As for the taste, imagine the sweetness and umami marine flavors of fresh scallops increased by a whole order of magnitude. The intensity is remarkable and I love eating them dry like little nuggets of seafood jerky. They are extremely addictive this way, like candy, actually, but you need to exercise a little restraint as they make for a very expensive snack food indeed. In fact, the medium sized ones you see in the first picture cost my wife $48.00 CDN in Vancouver’s Chinatown and they are considerably more expensive as you move east. Once prepared and cooked, the flesh of the conpoy still retains a lovely rich sweetness and will add considerable depth to all sorts of dishes.
Preparation and Uses
The dried product can be added as is to soups and long-cooked ‘wet’ dishes like casseroles but, generally, they need to be first softened by soaking or steaming.
To soak, you simply need to just cover the conpoy with hot water and leave until softened. The length of time will vary depending on size and initial dryness, but anywhere from about 30 minutes to an hour or two will usually suffice. Once softened, the flesh can then be shredded into thin fibers as you see above.
After the conpoy are soft, make sure to retain the soaking water as it will be highly flavored and can be added to whatever you are cooking, It can used immediately to give additional depth to the same dish to which the soaked conpoy are going to be added (it is lovely for sauces), or else it can be reserved and then added to other soups or stocks.
To be honest, I find that simple soaking is all that is necessary for preparing conpoy, (even the larger varieties), but many recipes suggest that they be steamed before use, either with, or without a preliminary soaking. Sometimes, a little rice wine is added to soaking/steaming water (and I added just a little to the ones you see steaming above). I have also even seen recipes that called for the scallops to be completely covered with nothing but rice wine before steaming, and, while I haven’t tried it myself, it rather strikes me as being a bit of overkill. In either event, as with simple soaking, you will want to reserve the liquid for culinary use once the scallops have softened.
One of the nicest ways to experience the flavor and versatility of conpoy for the first time is shredded into plain rice (using the soaking liquid as part of the cooking medium, of course). Similarly, the shreds from just a few medium size dried scallops can also be used to add wonderful notes of interest to an otherwise plain dish of noodles.
As noted already, conpoy are terrific added to soups, or to other one dish meals such as hot-pots, stews and casseroles. They are frequently paired with eggs in Chinese cookery (steamed or scrambled) and can liven up many vegetable dishes, especially flash-fried greens. In the 1980’s, a cooking and dipping condiment known as ‘XO Sauce’ based on dried seafood was developed in Hong Kong, and this delicious sauce relies heavily on Conpoy for it’s rich, umami flavors. This condiment is becoming increasingly more widely in the west, nowadays, and so it is possible that many people have enjoyed the essence of conpoy if only indirectly.
Since my wife’s recent foray into Vancouver’s Chinatown, I now have a pretty good supply of conpoy to work with and I will be doing a number of posts using them in the near future. I will certainly be doing a vegetable dish very shortly and, just maybe, I may even try my hand at my own version of an XO Sauce…