Abalone isn't one of America's most popular foods. There aren't any abalone bars here, serving up choice mollusk. Chefs aren't racing to put together all-abalone tasting menus to keep up with demand. Kids don't clamor for fried abalone sticks and Red Lobster has yet to debut an Endless Abalone menu. Honestly, most Americans probably don't even know how to pronounce this very edible mollusk (ab-ah-LOW-nee). That's a shame because abalone is good – really good. Thanks to overfishing and serious demand in Asia, however, it's also very, very expensive.
In the 20th century, before overfishing brought their stocks to record lows, abalone was a much-enjoyed delicacy, especially on the West Coast of the United States — which is home to seven species (black, green, pink, white, red, flat, and pinto/threaded) although up to 130 species are recognized worldwide. You can still find abalone farms operating in the United States, but they're few and far between. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, the top sustainable seafood watch dog in the United States, abalone in general is considered a Best Choice pick — though species fished off Japan and China should be avoided.
So what exactly IS abalone? Essentially, it's a sea snail. More technically, it's a gastropod mollusk in the Haliotidae family (along with whelks and sea slugs). It's a univalve, which means that unlike their bivalve brethren, the mighty abalone just has a protective shell on one side of their bodies. The other side attaches to any rocky surface it can, feeding off of algae.
In terms of appearance, one could easily say it looks, well…we won't go there. Lying flat against a surface, the muscle spreads out, but once it's removed, that muscle contracts to protect the meaty "foot" inside. Honestly, the whole thing looks like an alien creature but what it lacks in looks, it makes up in taste.
While wild abalone stocks have been depleted globally, farmed abalone is on the rise. At the Big Island Abalone Company just outside of Kona, Hawaii, abalone is big business. They're raising close to 5 million abalone at a time (the ezo variety from Northern Japan) on a proprietary variety of red algae that they grow on the farm. Each abalone develops to between 1/3 and 1/2 pounds over three years or so and most of that product gets shipped directly to Japan where it's served as sashimi. The rest ends up in Oahu and, to a lesser extent, on the mainland where chefs do all sorts of good stuff to it.
Texturally, it's right between a scallop and squid with a crunchiness similar to conch but closest to the sensation you get eating jellyfish. You can eat them raw or cooked, like a clam, but grilling seems to work best. Pop them on any grill shell side-down, and it cooks in its own juices. The flavor is naturally buttery and salty, thanks to the salt water in which it lives. There's a chewiness to it, like a calamari steak, but that's not a bad thing. If you're going to eat abalone, the most important thing to remember is your wallet. At Big Island Abalone, the largest can set you back more than $20.
There's no telling if this univalve will ever become a staple of American cuisine, but chefs are definitely serving it — you can find abalone on the menus of the best restaurants in the country like Providence in Los Angeles and Daniel in New York. Chinese restaurants already integrate it heavily into dishes and if you've never tried abalone before, give it a shot the next time you see it on a menu. With the price going up and up, perhaps we'll see an abalone bar sooner rather than later…
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