So what is abalone? There are somewhere between 30 and 130 species worldwide (it’s a bit tricky to tell where one species ends and another begins). But for most people there’s only one food abalone worth talking about – and that’s the red (Haliotis rufescens). It’s basically a giant sea snail – not unlike conch, periwinkle, or whelk. But it’s absolutely delicious. And since it can reach up to a foot in length (seriously – the largest confirmed abalone caught was 12.34 inches!), it has plenty of tasty meat to eat. (And just in case you were wondering, there are actually seven species in California: red, white, green, pink, black, flat, and pinto).
So what does it taste like? Well, I’d say somewhere between a squid and a scallop – with a rich saltiness and butteriness built in. Most people bread and grill them, but we’re partial to a simpler preparation that really lets the abalone meat itself shine through. It’s a bigger delicacy in Japan and the rest of Asia than in the United States, but it’s starting to become a darling food of top chefs – who are using the (in our opinion, inferior) farmed variety. In Asia they also treat the ‘edge’ as a delicacy, although in the United States nearly all chefs dispose of it as a waste product.
Even if you’ve never tasted the meat, you’ve probably come across the abalone shell – either whole, hanging on a wall, or in shards as jewelry. Although the exterior is colored based on the abalone diet (in this case, red), the interior has an iridescent nacre that shifts between pink, red, green, purple, blue, and silver.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, it’s pronounced ab-uh-LOW-nee.
Humans have been eating red abalone about as far back as we can measure – there are middens in the Channel Islands dating back 7,500 years, and there’s good reason to believe their use as food dates back up to 12,000 years. But in recent decades their population has been threatened – in part by human fishing, and in part because the sea otter population has been steadily recovering (and sea otters enjoy a good abalone at least as much as people do!). In Southern California through much of the early 20thcentury wild abalone was fished commercially, and it devastated the populations (perhaps beyond recovery). In Northern California, thankfully, wild abalone was only fished on a wide-spread commercial scale for three years, and the population wasn’t quite as damaged.
So we’re lucky enough to (for now) still have personal sport fishing of abalone – albeit with strict guidelines to protect the remaining population. These rules shift year by year, in response to the constantly evolving needs of the fishery – stretches of coastline may be closed to personal fishing, minimum sizes may change, and daily and overall catch may be reduced. All in all, though, there’s hope that the red abalone population may continue to recover – so long as stewardship continues, poachers are prosecuted, and members of the community take seriously the care of this precious resource.