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.