What really makes the difference in an abalone dish

April 14, 2017 17:30
Abalones from Japan are sublime, while those from South Africa come at a lower price yet the taste make them a real bargain. Photo: HKEJ

Paul, known as “the Thai culture expert” in Hong Kong media, is an amiable, carefree chap who often volunteers to help local reporters in matters concerning Thailand.

In a recent visit to the city, Paul invited us to dinner at Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant, and he brought along some good red wine and Yamazaki’s 18-year-old limited edition single malt whisky.

Two days earlier he had delivered a stock of 30-head abalones to the restaurant to give the chef enough time to prepare the fleshy mollusks for our grand dinner.

He had won the abalones in a fundraising auction.

According to him, the bidding started at HK$4,000, then immediately went up to HK$5,000.

Paul then offered HK$10,000 in the hope of bringing out the most serious bidder and finishing the auction more quickly, but no one followed suit.

And so the auctioneer declared him the winner, but openly suggested that he raise his bid to HK$14,800. Paul happily obliged as it was for a good cause, and took home the abalones.

However, it turned out that what he got were not 30-head Yoshihama abalones as advertised, but some South African abalones, according to a veteran merchandiser he consulted.

That didn’t seem to bother Paul, who said his intention was simply to donate to charity.

Now how do you distinguish between Yoshihama and South African abalones? Chef Chui Wai-Kwan from the Seventh Son Restaurant gave me a few tips.

Japan has some of the most sophisticated abalone drying processes. Different methods are employed for different varieties.

Amidori abalones are dried on bamboo-woven trays. Oma abalones are tied together with a string and laid out for drying. Yoshihama abalones are also tied together, but they are hung on a line to dry instead.

So Yoshihama abalones have tiny holes on both ends and a faint linear scar in the middle. You can't find these marks in the South African variety.

The older the Japanese abalone, the darker the color and higher the quality.

Yoshihama abalones are available from 15 heads to 50 heads; the fewer the heads, the bigger the size of the abalone.

Their prices range from HK$3,000 to HK$30,000 per catty.

South African abalones are far cheaper, or what I would call the value-for-money variety.

Ultimately, it's not the variety of the abalone that matters but the skill of the chef preparing the dish.

And at Pak Loh Chiu Chow, braised South African abalones with goose feet make a superb dish.

Personally, I found the super tender goose feet even better. The braised abalone sauce would be perfect to go with charcoal fire-grilled premium-grade Thai jasmine rice in a claypot or topped on shrimp roe noodles.

Ah, if only I wasn't watching my weight...

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 5

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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a veteran journalist and food critic