Dried Abalone is one of the more expensive ingredients used in Chinese cookery. Like Dried Shark’s Fin, or the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’, much of its cachet is less about the taste than it is the fact that, being so expensive, it is very much limited to, and associated with special occasions. It takes a lot of time to prepare Dried Abalone for use in the kitchen, and, ultimately, some people feel that the taste experience really isn’t worth the time or expense. Still, that being said, it remains as one of those things that ought to be tried at least once.
Why is Dried Abalone So Expensive?
Dried Abalone ranges in price anywhere from ‘expensive’ to ‘outrageous’. In the above picture, you can see a jar displayed in a store in Vancouver’s Chinatown back in 2018 in which the largest and best-quality ones are on sale, marked down to just over $1000 per pound from nearly $1500 CDN for the pound.
Abalone, for those not familiar, are a shellfish found in cool-water coastal regions around much of the world, and they are eaten in the fresh form in the cuisines of many countries. They are difficult to harvest in the wild, however, but, despite this, overfishing has caused stocks to decline and, in recent years, farmed Abalone represent most of Abalone meat consumed. At present the principal regions for Abalone farming are China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, and it is chiefly in Chinese cuisine that the shellfish is prized in dried form.
You can buy Dried Abalone fairly easily, if not cheaply, on-line these days, but sourcing them is a little bit difficult in brick-and-mortar stores in North America unless you happen to live in a City large enough to have a Chinatown, or with a large enough Asian population to have specialty food shops. Because of the high price commanded by even the cheapest of Dried Abalone, you are unlikely to come across them in small grocery stores.
The best place for finding Dried Abalone is in the sort of store that specializes in ingredients used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where you will often see them offered for sale apothecary-style in large glass jars. The picture above, and the previous one, represent the two end jars in a display of about a dozen or so in all. The little ones you see here, were the cheapest available here and even they were selling for well over $100 CDN a pound. The three shown in the dish in the very first picture actually came from the second or third jar in that range, and cost me just over $80 CDN for a mere half-pound.
How to Soak, Clean, and Prepare Dried Abalone for Use
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 three days initial soaking would probably have been sufficient for Dried Abalone of these size.
Many recipes call for you to use a lot of water, changing it frequently during this 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. Here, I just used enough water to keep my three abalone completely submerged and the end result was just fine despite there being no changes of the water.
Once Dried Abalone have been reconstituted by soaking, they need to be cleaned. The first step involves simply brushing and rinsing away any grit or detritus, while the second requires trimming away the dark area indicated in the above picture by the tip of the knife blade. This is part of the Abalone’s entrails and should be discarded.
Although the initial soaking reconstitutes Dried Abalone, and softens it somewhat, it will still need further tenderizing, otherwise it will still be too chewy and tough to be edible. Sometimes, the whole Abalone is simmered in water with other meats and aromatics in order to make stock (with the Abalone contributing to the finished flavor), but it is also a pretty common practice to simply simmer it in a pre-made stock, such as a neutral canned product, or a simple Basic Chinese Chicken Stock.
The length of time required to simmer reconstituted Dried Abalone will obviously depend on the size of them to begin with, and the degree to which it has been softened already. The three pictured above were simmered for almost six hours, at which point they were tender enough to be easily pierced by a tooth=pic. Naturally, larger ones will take even longer.
What Does Abalone Taste Like?
Dried Abalone, once prepared for use, is probably closer to Octopus than anything else, both in terms of texture as well as taste. It has the same, dense, rather chewy consistence as does lightly cooked Octopus flesh, and it has a taste that is often a shade more ‘fish’ than ‘shellfish’. Some people liken it to Scallop, but, while this may be true to some degree in the case of fresh Abalone, the comparison doesn’t really hold for the dried variety, and the sweetness is nowhere near as pronounced as with Conpoy (Dried Scallop).
Using Dried Abalone in Recipes
A simple way of using prepared Dried Abalone is to serve it whole in any of the ways one might serve fresh Abalone. Here, the three specimens soaked and cleaned for the purposes of this post were simmered briefly, along with some fresh lettuce, in a reduction of the initial soaking liquid with a little Oyster sauce added for a touch of sweetness.
Given the expenses of Dried Abalone, it will often make sense to use it sparingly. The pan-fried buns pictured above were served to me at a Dim Sum restaurant in Edmonton, Alberta and, in addition to Pork, they contained finely diced Abalone. The faint marine flavor added a lovely umami lift to the Pork, and the chewy texture really enhanced the overall effect nicely.
Finally, commercially made XO Sauce almost always includes Dried Shrimp, but the better ones also contain Dried Scallop as well. The XO Sauce you see above is a product of Kei Cheong Foods Ltd. of Hong Kong and it also contains Dried Abalone. It is quite decadent, and very good indeed.