Unlike most other popular molluscs, including Scallops, Oysters and Mussels which are bivalves with two shells hinged together, Abalone has just one shell. Called gastropods or univalves, such single-shelled creatures are often of less culinary interest than their two-shelled cousins, but the 100 or so species of Abalone found around the world are a notable exception.
They live in the swell zone along open coastlines most commonly off Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and the west coast of North America, and so have developed a large muscular foot (called an adductor muscle) with which they firmly attach themselves to their rocky homes. This firm muscle is highly prized, especially by Asian restaurants here and overseas, making Abalone one of Australia’s most highly-valued seafood species, with the meat retailing for around $100/kg.
The rough, flat, oval shells have an opalescent mother-of-pearl (nacre) interior, which makes them popular decorative items; New Zealand’s beautiful Paua is a type of Abalone. Known as perlemoen in South Africa and ormer in the UK, the spiralled whorls and shape of Abalone shells has led to the name ‘ear shells’ or ‘sea ears’ in many languages, including French ormeau, Italian orecchia marina, Spanish oreja de mer and Dutch zee-oor. There is a distinctive row of holes around the edge of the shell through which the Abalone breathes and spawns.
There are 18 species of Abalone in Australian waters; the 10 found in cooler waters, including the 2 main commercial varieties, are unique to Australia. The colour of the dark lip around the edge of their foot helps differentiate them.
Blacklip Abalone (Haliotis rubra) is the most common species in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and is found from Ceduna (South Australia) to Ballina (NSW). Tasmania has the largest wild harvest Abalone fishery in Australia, which is predominantly Blacklip, while Victoria also farms some Blacklip. It’s typically 250g-350g (live weight) when fully grown, the shell measuring 13-17cm.
Greenlip Abalone (Haliotis laevigata) is found along Australia’s southern coast, off Victoria, South Australia, northern Tasmania and Western Australia. The most common aquaculture species, it’s farmed mainly in South Australia, (although Victoria and Tasmania have some farms) and is often harvested at 3 years of age, when the shell is 7-11cm, and sold as ‘cocktail’ Abalone. When fully grown it’s a similar size to Blacklip.
Tiger Abalone (Haliotis laevigata x Haliotis rubra), a hybrid of Greenlip and Blacklip Abalones named for its sometimes-striped frill, is a common aquaculture species.
Other Abalones harvested in Australian waters include:
Brownlip Abalone (Haliotis rubra conicopora), harvested off southern Western Australia, is closely related to Blacklip Abalone.
The small Roe’s Abalone (Haliotis roei), also known as Redlip Abalone, is 25-36g and 7-9cm; it’s harvested off southern Western Australia but also found off South Australia.
Staircase Abalone (Haliotis scalaris), another smaller species, is found on intertidal reefs off South Australia and southern Western Australia, but isn’t harvested due to its size.
Whirling Abalone (Haliotis cyclobates) is another smaller species living on intertidal reefs off South Australia; it’s not harvested commercially.
Other temperate water species unique to Australia include: Brazier’s (H. brazieri), Reddish-rayed (H. coccoradiata), Elegant (H. elegans) and Semiplicate (H. semiplicata) Abalones.
Tropical Indo-Pacific species found in Australian waters include Donkey-ear (H. asinina), which is the fastest growing Abalone and is farmed in SE Asia; Oval (H. ovina) and Scaly Australian (H. squamata) Abalones.
Abalone is available in the shell (live or frozen), as meat (frozen and vacuum-packed or dried). Farmed ‘cocktail’ Abalone is generally less expensive than Abalone harvested from the wild.
Abalone can be kept live for up to 3 days stored in a deep-sided bucket covered with a hessian sack soaked in water and stored in the coolest part of the house. Alternatively, refrigerate shucked meat for 2-3 days or freeze for up to 3 months below -18ºC.
Average yield is 35%. Use a short-bladed knife to slide around the edge between the flesh and the shell, remove meat and cut off intestine (the small sack attached to the underside). Rinse and dry. Cut off the small piece of gristle at the head end (next to the small antennas), trim off the frill and lip, turn over and cut a thin layer off the surface of the foot where it attached to the rock; trim all surfaces of any dark material. Under cold running water, using a small paring knife, scrape off the brown film remaining on the sides. Slice horizontally and tenderize by placing between two freezer bags and beating lightly with a meat mallet. The frill and lip don’t need to be trimmed off cocktail Abalone, but the dark film still needs to be scraped off the foot and the sides to prevent it becoming tough; they don’t need tenderising and can be cooked whole or sliced as thinly as possible.
Abalone is low in oil with a subtle flavour and firm texture. Greenlip has a slightly stronger flavour than Blacklip. It’s best cooked very quickly over a high heat (for just a few seconds) or very slowly over a low heat (for up to 6 hours, depending on size). The meat absorbs flavours well and can be braised, steamed, poached, pan-fried, stir-fried, barbecued or eaten raw (sashimi). The meat can be cooked (especially steamed) in the cleaned shells, which also make good serving vessels. The firm texture means it can be substituted for Squid, Octopus or Cuttlefish in some recipes.