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The abalone is a gastropod mollusk notable not only for a resemblance to the human ear that earned it the nickname “ear-shell,” but also for being the most value shellfish in the world. Let’s find out why.
Traditionally, the abalone is caught in Oceania, the United States, Mexico, and the Indo-Pacific region, but can also be found in Great Britain or Normandy. In the English Channel it is known as the gofiche, and by its Maori name in New Zealand, paua.
The abalone’s value comes both from its delicious meat and from its polished shell, a beautiful iridescent, blue mother of pearl carapace. In nature, it lives on rocky outcrops in the ocean, where it feeds on algae. The shell’s tough exterior creates an extremely strong hold to the rocks it lives on—so much so that removing abalone is extremely difficult, and requires time, skill and dedication.
This is one of the the reasons this shellfish is so expensive: capturing it is extremely complicated. Shells camouflages with their surroundings, taking on the color of algae and hiding in small nooks and crannies, spaces that are almost impossible to reach by hand. Moreover, the abalone runs a high risk of extinction, and many countries cap capture at twenty pieces per fisherman per day.
The quantities fished are thus limited in comparison to demand, and the price of wild abalone can run as high as $500USD per kilo, depending on size. The fact that abalone shells are quite heavy only compounds the issue, as a kilo caught roughly translates into 250 grams of meat.
Abalone is especially valued in Southeast Asian cuisine. Dishes prepared with this distinguished mollusk can cost true fortunes in Japan, where it is known as the “truffle of the sea.”
All of this is without even mentioning the taste: it’s a wonder that no one who tries it will ever forget. It tastes like a small and delicate portion of its ocean home; the crispness of its meat, iodine, and the fineness of its texture stand out.
The first time I tried one, I thought, “The closest thing to this would be eating two of the highest quality oysters at the same time.” It’s a true delicacy.
The respected Japanese chef Shinja Fukumoto, whose credentials include three Michelin stars, is an expert with this mollusk. At his restaurant in Kobe, Ca Sento, he prepares it as sashimi, tartare or carpaccio. For the more adventurous, he serves them raw, after having tenderized it well with a mallet over a board to soften its texture.
Another great chef, the spaniard Ángel León of Aponiente, with two Michelin stars to his name, prepares a delicious tasting menu where abalone is cooked with butter and mushrooms.
Although in recent years abalones have been raised in captivity, wild abalone stands apart: its flavor is much more concentrated and exquisite. It’s unsurprising that it is the most expensive seafood in the world today. ■