I have this vague childhood memory of a cousin, or an uncle, or someone, bringing my grandparents a freshly caught abalone from who-knows-where. Upon presentation of the abalone, the household of grandparents, aunts, and uncles went absolutely bonkers--like if Ed McMahon had just handed them a check the size of two mahjong tables.
After everyone had settled down a bit, the strange-looking sea creature was then shucked and transformed into what I remember as two dishes that day: the first was some sort of abalone soup, and the second was the Philippine ceviche-like dish of kinilaw. Although that would be my only experience with abalone (at least for many many more years), I never forgot its unique and delicate flavor.
Then, many many more years later, I would be reaquainted with abalone at an epic dinner at Urasawa. After being served awabi (abalone sushi), as well as abalone liver (tasty!) that memorable night, the flavors immediately brought me back to that fateful day at my grandparents when they went ape-shit for abalone.
So what makes abalone so special? Well, for one, it tastes incredible. Although some find abalone's flavor similar to that of squid or clams, the texture of these moluscs are the closer comparison--all have a chewy bite to them. Flavorwise, I think abalone tastes like abalone. Sounds like a cop-out, but I really think the flavor of abalone is one-of-a-kind. It tastes briny and sweet and of the sea, but delicately so.
Aside from its unique flavor, wild abalone is also pretty hard to come by. Although small farm-raised abalone is plentiful and available commercially, wild Red Abalone is prized for its large size, thickness, and flavor.
In California, commercial harvesting of wild abalone is completely outlawed. The only way to obtain abalone is to dive for it yourself with a snorkel and by holding your breath--SCUBA gear is not permitted when abalone diving. Also, abalone can only be harvested north of the San Francisco bay between April and November (with a break in July). Although these regulations seem like a pain (there are many more I didn't list), they are meant to sustain and protect red abalone populations in California--which is a very good thing.
And because it's such a rare culinary treasure, abalone is a fairly pricey commodity, which is probably why my grandparents flipped out all those years back, and perhaps why abalone can only usually be found in high-end joints like Urasawa. Luckily, I scored some abalone for free (and legally) on my fishing trip a couple weeks back.
Sizing up Red Abalone
When "picking abs", divers must be sure to pick abalone that measure 7-inches or larger only. Abs of this size are usually found stuck on rocks at 20-30ft below the surface--making the harvest of abalone a task for experienced sport divers only. Also, divers can only pick three abs a day, with a total of 24 abs per year. Selling of any abalone is illegal--abalone poachers and buyers can receive jail time in addition to heavy fines. So if you've eaten abalone at a restaurant, chances are that the abalone was farmed (still pricey) or poached (i.e. illegally harvested). Since I ate at Urasawa in December, I'm assuming that the abalone I had there was farm-raised.
Tagging an Ab
Adding to the list of abalone regulations, once the abalone is removed from the water, it must immediately be zip-tied and tagged with a state-provided label in which the diver must write the date and location of where the ab was harvested. Sheesh.
Although the selling of wild abalone is strictly prohibited in the state of California, divers are allowed to give abalone away as gifts. Score for me!
So what to do once you've got a fresh wild-caught abalone in your clutches? First, you've got to shuck and clean the thing.
To shuck an abalone, think ginormous oyster on the half-shell extraction. Basically, a flat blunt object is inserted between the shell and the meat and then the meat is carefully scooped out. Usually, an "ab iron" is used to shuck an abalone, though a rice paddle can be used as well. An ab iron is basically a big, blunt off-set spatula, and it's the same contraption used by divers to jimmy the abalone off of its rock under water.
Once the abalone is out of its irridescent shell, its innards must be dealt with. Innards? Yup, abalone haz innards like liver, and a mouth, and oh, teeth.
Cutting out the guts with a sharp knife
Abalone liver and viscera
After the abalone has been eviscerated, the black film around its "lips" can be scrubbed off with a rough sponge, or cut off entirely. Whew.
Thinly sliced for sashimi, or even Kinilaw
Once the abalone is shucked, gutted, and cleaned, it can then be sliced and tenderized. After slicing, the abalone slices should be placed between two sheets of plastic wrap and then gently tapped with a mallet to tenderize the meat.
After being sliced and tenderized, the abalone is ready for your favorite preparation. My favorite? Either thinly sliced and then dipped in soy and wasabi as sashimi, or even better, spritzed with kalamansi juice and sprinkled with sea salt for a very basic, but incredibly fresh, kinilaw.
Abalone, Sea salt, and Kalamansi
For those of you not familiar, Kinilaw is an indigenous Philippine dish of fresh seafood quickly bathed in a sour liquid such as citrus juice and/or vinegar. Kinilaw is basically a ceviche sans the long marination time. You can read more about Kinilaw in my post here.
And while a simple spritz of kalamansi juice and a sprinkling of sea salt make a perfect kinilaw without overpowering the delicate flavor of abalone, I'm sure there are those of you who perhaps want more in their kinilaw.
In that case, I've also enjoyed abalone bathed in a mixture of soy, kalamansi juice, cane vinegar, chopped ginger, and sliced siling labuyo (thai bird peppers). This is a more robust kinilaw, with spice from the ginger and peppers, yet the abalone flavor still shines.
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1-2 thai bird chilies, sliced
1/4 cup kalamansi juice
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons Filipino cane vinegar
1 red abalone, shucked, cleaned, sliced, and tenderized
In a small bowl, combine the ginger, chillies, kalamansi juice, soy, and vinegar. Arrange the abalone slices in a single layer on a large platter. Spoon some of the kinilaw mixture over the abalone, and reserve the rest of the liquid as a dipping sauce.