How Is Abalone Eaten and What Is It Exactly?

Scientifically classified as a sea snail belonging to the Haliotis family, abalone is a marine gastropod mollusk that has gained recognition in the seafood industry for its remarkable flavor and eye-catching appearance. There are roughly 50 distinct species in this amazing family of shellfish, which is found in warmer coastal waters worldwide by nature. These animals are found in kelp forests and other rocky shorelines with submerged vegetation. They are found on the Pacific coast of the United States and the coastlines of Australia, South Africa, Japan, and other nations. They can tolerate strong wave action in their habitats because of their strong attachment to rocks.

Abalones span a range of sizes, contingent on factors such as their species and age. These shellfish can be as petite as a coin or as substantial as 12 inches or more in length. Their size and shape can significantly vary among species, from elongated to more rounded forms. Although you can harvest them in the wild by prying them off rocks, over 95% of abalone used in food comes from aquaculture, and some wild species are endangered – thus it is illegal to harvest them in the wild. Even so, they are prized for their lustrous shells and delicate taste.

What is abalone?

From the outside, an abalone looks kind of like a flattened snail. It has a hard and heavy shell that covers the topside of the body while the soft, fleshy side is attached to the rocks. However, when you flip it over and remove the meat, the shell exhibits an iridescent surface, commonly known as mother of pearl or nacre. Created by the microscopic layers of calcium carbonate within the shell, the inner surface of abalone shells diffracts and refracts light to produce these stunning hues.

Compared to other sea snails, abalones are distinguished by their flat shells and their attachment mechanism. Whereas other sea snails — such as the whelk — have pointy spiral shells, abalone shells are flat spirals, with holes on the side to facilitate reproduction and waste disposal. Furthermore, while many species of sea snails move about, abalones are mostly stationary, attaching themselves to coastal rocks for most of their lives. This hearty mollusk is so delicious that it has been hunted to the brink of extinction, which is why sustainable abalone farms have become the norm for the meat you find in grocery stores.

What does abalone taste like?
The taste of abalone changes depending on whether you are purchasing them raw or dried. When you are tasting it straight out of the shell, abalone can be served sliced thin sashimi style. It has a very hard and dense texture, and like many seafood, it has a briny and sweet flavor common to shellfish when eaten raw. It could be the perfect companion for Takazawa-style sashimi. The younger the abalone, the milder the flavor.

Fresh or frozen abalone can also be served steamed, usually dressed with soy sauce, scallions, and ginger. In Korea, one of the most notable ways to prepare abalone is to make a rice porridge, called Jeonbokjuk. The mollusk is chopped up and slowly cooked with rice, spices, and vegetables until softened. The taste is strongly of the sea — but tempered and softened by the aromatics it simmers with.

Meanwhile, in China, abalone is often sold dried, so they have to be slow-cooked in a complex meat-heavy stock for a very long time. When prepared this way, the flesh is soft and slightly chewy, and the flavor is a combination of briny seafood and the braising liquid, full of umami from Chinese-style dried ham. It is a very expensive delicacy and is often prepared during Chinese New Year.

How to cook with abalone

Depending on the form of abalone you can find and purchase, there are several tips to make sure you can fully enjoy this very pricey ingredient. If you have canned abalone from an Asian market, they come already cooked and braised. In this case, the best use for the mollusk is to take advantage of the sauce and use it to dress the blanched vegetable. Heat up the contents of the can to a gentle simmer, and season it with ginger, soy sauce, and oyster sauce. In a separate pan, blanch a leafy vegetable that absorbs sauces well, such as napa cabbage and bok choy. Arrange the vegetables on the platter and pour the sauce and abalone on top, and you are ready to serve.

If you can find live or fresh-frozen abalone in your local seafood market, you should savor its flavor by preparing it as simply as possible. For example, you can steam the abalone in its shell covered in garlic, ginger, chilis, and soy sauce. However, if you are planning to serve them whole, you should cut a crosshatch pattern, so the flesh can soften while steaming. Otherwise, cut the meat into thin slices, so they achieve a slightly chewy texture without becoming tough when cooked.

You can also pan-fry the abalone steak drenched in breadcrumbs or flour, and serve it with a side of horseradish. For sides, add whatever you prefer when eating scallops — risotto, salad, or a roasted veg.

Purchasing abalone and its nutritional value

If you live in Asia, Australia, or California, chances are you can find abalone at your local seafood market. However, for those who do not, you should be able to purchase dried, canned, or frozen specimens from your local Asian market. You can also find canned and dried abalone online from shops such as Amazon and even Walmart. When purchasing them fresh, look for specimens that do not smell fishy, and make sure that their flesh is dark, thick, and not shriveled.

In terms of nutrition, abalone presents a mixed bag. Although 100 grams of steamed or poached abalone has a significant daily recommended intake of Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Cobalamin (Vitamin B12), and Vitamin E, it is also very high in cholesterol and sodium. On the other hand, abalone is also a significant source of your daily intake of minerals, including copper, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium. Given its price and the required steps to prepare it, it is safe to say that abalone makes an excellent occasional treat.