Dried Scallops, or 乾貝, add a terrific rich umami depth to many dishes. Read on and learn how to buy, prepare, use these ‘Conpoy’ in your own recipes.
What are Dried Scallops a.k.a. Conpoy?
Dried Scallops are a much prized ingredient in Chinese cuisine and are simply the adductor muscles of fresh Scallops which have been briefly cooked and then dried.
As with many dried products, the drying process really intensifies the flavors and the normal umami sweetness of fresh Bay Scallops or Sea Scallops is super-magnified in the dried variety.
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.
These little umami-bombs can be quite expensive, so you won’t often find them in dishes in ‘take-away’, or highly westernized Chinese restaurants. In more upscale establishments, however, you may see them on the menu identified by the more poetic name ‘瑤柱’ (yáozhù), which means ‘Jade Pillars’.
What do Dried Scallops Taste Like?
Conpoy when properly dried and stored have a pungently strong marina aroma that is not unlike Dried Shrimp, except sweeter.
As for the taste, it is difficult to describe the experience to those who have not tried dried Scallops directly, and the best I can suggest is to imagine the sweetness and umami marine flavors of fresh scallops increased by a whole order of magnitude.
Even if you haven’t been able to sample Conpoy directly, you may well have experienced the flavor indirectly in the cooking and dipping condiment known as ‘XO Sauce’ . This delicious sauce relies heavily on Conpoy for it’s rich, umami flavors and is becoming increasingly more widely used in Chinese restaurant dishes these days.
In any event, o you have purchased some, you will find that intensity is remarkable and it is a terrific treat 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 just a small amount will add considerable depth to all sorts of dishes.
How to buy Dried Scallops (Conpoy)
Here you can see a variety different sizes of Conpoy in a close-up view.
The largest ones seen here are dried Sea Scallops, about an inch across in greatest diameter. You can find ones that are even larger than this, but they tend to be very expensive indeed. The larger ones are rarely used whole in dishes and tend, instead, to be shredded
The smaller ones, which are almost always dried Bay Scallops, are useful when used whole in soups and the like. They are relatively cheap.
The Medium sized 乾貝, generally small Sea Scallops, tend to be the most versatile and may be used both whole and shredded.
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.
When buying, look for Conpoy having lighter shades of tan (the two types in the middle of the above picture illustrate this the best), and which are not overly brittle. If you can find them for sale in bulk, rather than packaged, purchase those that have a good strong sweet marine smell, and avoid anything that has hints of ammonia in the aroma.
How to Store Dried Scallops (乾貝)
Conpoy keep remarkably well… after all, drying has been a means of preserving food for thousands of years now.
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.
How to Prepare Dried Scallops by Soaking
Conpoy can be added as is to soups and long-cooked ‘wet’ dishes like stews or casseroles but, for most other uses, they need to be first softened by soaking.
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 your 乾貝 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 splash 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 also want to reserve the liquid for culinary use once the scallops have softened.
How to Use Dried Scallops (Conpoy) in Cooking
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