Dried Scallops are very often used in Chinese cookery, and it is a bit of a shame that relatively few western cooks know how to prepare and use them 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’, which translate to ‘Jade Pillars’.
Appearance and Taste
The dried scallops you see in the very first picture are medium sized but, as you can see above, they can be purchased in a variety of sizes.
The largest ones seen here are about an inch across in greatest diameter, but you can find ones that are even larger than that. The smaller ones are useful when used whole in soups and the like, while the medium sized ones tend to be the most versatile.
Here you can see the different sizes in a bit more of a close-up shot… Some dried scallops 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. All are quite fibrous, and this is easily seen in the larger types.
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. 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.
It is difficult to describe the fullness of the taste to those who have not tried conpoy before but, 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 you may have enjoyed the essence of conpoy if only indirectly.
Conpoy keep remarkably well… after all, drying has been a means of preserving food for thousands of years. You can actually keep them in any cool, dark place, such as a cupboard, especially the drier ones, but I keep mine in the refrigerator.
In either case, make sure you keep your precious conpoy in a tightly covered container to keep them away from the air and any ambient moisture. I have actually had some of mine keep pretty decently for several years but, as with anything, the taste will begin to fade over time. As a general rule, it is best to use any you purchase within a year.
The dried product can be added as is to soups and long-cooked ‘wet’ dishes like stews or 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, but that 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 to shred the prepared flesh 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