De-shelled, a whole abalone looks much like a Chinese gold ingot. For this reason, the mollusc is often held up as a symbol of wealth; an auspicious ingredient enjoyed during the Lunar New Year celebrations to welcome good fortune. For years, it is associated with Chinese cuisine where it reigns as a highly sought-after delicacy in restaurants, often simply braised in a thick sauce.
Yet over the festive period, other restaurants have begun reinterpreting the abalone with unique touches in line with their cuisines. As unusual as these dishes may sound, the abalone’s integrity — brininess, texture and all — remains.
More than just braising
While Yardbird’s executive chef Leonard Delgado notices that braising abalone is common in Asia, he is more familiar with the ‘American way’ of preparing it. “Americans usually slice them thinly before coating on a layer of flour and egg, then sear them before serving with lemon-butter sauce,” he shares.
In his East-meets-West take on a Surf & Turf ensemble, he switches out the usual shrimp or lobster highlights for South African abalones as an accompaniment with Japanese wagyu steak. Freshly shucked abalone is lightly seared and braised in a smoky broth. The same broth, now imbued with the abalone’s briny flavours, is made into a Southern-style barbecue glaze for the seafood.
Over at Osia Steak and Seafood Grill, chef de cuisine Douglas Tay presents the abalone as fresh ceviche, inspired by yusheng salads. The ceviche is served with raw abalone and dressed with a ‘tone-downed’ tiger’s milk. Also added are pomelo bits, coriander and chilli for a touch of heat.
Perhaps its one of purest ways of presenting the ingredient. After all, the premium placed on abalone comes not only from its perceived symbolism but also from the incredible difficulty in catching them. Found along the coasts the Americas, the Indo-Pacific region, Australia and Japan, the abalone hides under covers of kelp or between rocks on the ocean floors. Removing one from a rock requires time and effort, a dangerous activity even for the most experienced of divers.
Serving it as a ceviche would be savouring it as close to its natural state as possible, except perhaps as a form of sashimi.
Not that’s it deterred The Song of India’s chef Manjunath Mural from creating a Lunar New Year dish special. Mural is no stranger to quirky festive creations, having made tandoori turkeys stuffed with biryani for Christmas last year.
This time, he takes on the pencai, a traditional Chinese casserole stuffed to high heavens with premium ingredients, including abalone. Mural’s version comes with abalone, prawns, salmon and lamb marinated with garam masala, yellow ginger and turmeric. The ingredients are cooked in the tandoor and then coated with creamy, tandoori gravy. “We use fresh abalone and the briny flavour complements the gravy,” he adds. “It brings a more complex level of flavour to the pencai.”
It’s unconventional, but in the delicate flavour of the mollusc lies the challenge.
“We don’t often use the ingredient in Indian cuisine,” explains Mural. “But I wanted to fuse Indian flavours and Chinese culture and saw this as an opportunity to push myself.”