Dried Abalone is one of those special ingredients, such as Shark fin, to use another example, that are highly prized, especially in Chinese cuisine. These sorts of delicacies typically just served for special occasions, not only because of the sheer expense, but also, because of the time-consuming preparation required.
For those unfamiliar, the Abalone is an open-shelled marine snail that is cultivated and harvested in many places around the world. The fresh meat is considered a delicacy in many cuisines, and one can also buy it canned, but the dried variety is most particularly associated with Chinese cookery. I have yet to try the fresh article myself, and so cannot compare it to the dried , but my experience is that dried abalone, while very tasty (and with a pleasant texture), owes much of its cachet, like, say, rare wines, or long-aged single malt scotches, to the expense rather than any special quality. That being said, though, it is definitely worth trying at least once…
I bought the abalone for today’s post in Vancouver’s Chinatown this past July. The store in question had about 10 or 12 sizes on sale ranging from the merely expensive (left image) to the outrageous (right image). I bought a half-pound the second most expensive, which set me back about $80.
Before use in a given dish, abalone requires a lengthy soaking to reconstitute, followed by a preliminary cooking, by braising or stewing. If you google the process, you will find dozens of different time estimates for the two processes but, basically, the length of each will depend upon the size of the abalone and the degree of dehydration. In all cases, the first part will involve several days, and the latter many hours.
Here you can see one of my abalone after four days of soaking along with a still dry specimen for comparison. In this case, there was actually very little change between the third and fourth day so I will just do three days the next time.
Many recipes call for you to use a lot of water, changing it frequently during the process. This however, is a bit of a waste as the water takes on the flavour of the meat and can be used for making sauces. I just used enough water to keep my three abalone completely submerged and didn’t change it at all.
It is quite common for the preliminary braising of the meat to be done with pork ribs and bone-in chicken so as to create a stock as you go. For this post, I just used some chicken stock I had on hand. I simmered my three abalone for about a total of six hours and, at that point, a toothpick was able to pierce the flesh fairly easily while still leaving it nicely firm and chewy.
I used the soaking water as the base for a sauce and, after reduction, added just a little oyster sauce for sweetness, and a cornstarch slurry to thicken. I braised the abalone in this enough to heat through and then served them, along with the sauce on a bed of braised lettuce leaves.
As for the taste?
Well… the closest comparison I can think of is octopus. There is also a clear taste of ‘fish’ rather than shellfish and the overall taste experience is very enjoyable. The texture is also quite a bit like octopus, except with no fibrous component, and can also be compared to the flesh of Sea Cucumber, which also requires a similar preparation process. In truth, if I am going to spend a lot of money on a single food item, there are other choices I would make but, as I say, this is definitely worth a try if you haven’t yet …