What is Awabi アワビ【鮑】?
Abalone are called awabi> in Japan, they are a genus of large marine snails, which resemble an auricle in their shape. They are considered a sought-after delicacy, particularly in Asia, and are especially in demand in Japan as an ingredient for the preparation of sashimi and sushi. High-quality specimens are counted among the most expensive sushi ingredients.
Awabi as an Ingredient for Sushi and Sashimi
In Japan, the muscle meat of the awabi is highly valued for the preparation of various dishes. When preparing Sushi or as Sashimi, the freshness of the awabi plays a central role. For this reason they are usually killed shortly before preparation. Eaten is unfortunately the muscle foot, which is cut into slices. The consistency is crispy and firm, but not tough.
In addition to the raw, freshly prepared iki awabi (活きアワビ), the cooked variant mushi awabi (蒸しアワビ) is also highly appreciated as nimonodane sushi. The Awabi is salted before cooking and then heated in a mixture of sake and water, for example. Of very large awabi, such as the madaka-awabi, the cooked liver is considered a special delicacy. Moreover, it is said in Japan that the taste of the male Awabi, is superior to those of the female specimens.
Awabi in Japan
Besides the preparation as sushi or sashimi, there are different dishes in which awabi are steamed, salted, boiled, chopped or cooked in soy sauce. In some regions of Japan, awabiliver is considered a special delicacy. Probably one of the most unusual methods of preparation is a soup made from salted abalone, mixed with yams (awabi no tororo-jiru, 鮑のとろろ汁).
In Japan, it is customary to give awabi as a gift to someone to whom one wishes a long life. The custom is derived from the fact that awabi meat is very elastic and this metaphor should be applied to the to the life of the receiver of this gift [Volker 1975].
In the old Japanese folk belief (shintō) awabi serves as a symbol of female fertility. Because the appearance of the awabi resembles female genitalia and labia, it is used by the Japanese as a circumlocution of the vulva ([Krauss, 1909], [Kassachau & Eguchi, 2015]).
Closely related to abalone is the Japanese tradition of ama (海人), the Japanese term for apnea mussel divers. These are usually women who also dive for the highly coveted abalone, among other seafood.
Characteristics & Ecology
Abalones reach a size of up to 20 cm. The shape differs according to the species. Abalones prefer rocky reefs in a depth of about 20 m. The predominant diet consists of brown algae. It is almost impossible to distinguish female and male Abalones from the outside. On the basis of the gonads, however, a distinction can be made. The sex can be distinguished by opening the abalone and comparing the color of the gonads. The gonads of male abalone are whitish and those of females are green.
Among connoisseurs, kuro awabi, literally translated “black sea-ear“, is considered the tastiest awabi-species and is accordingly expensive. It is also said that kuro awabi is best suited for sashimi because its firm flesh smells pleasant and has a full flavor. The best season is considered to be late spring to summer.
Kuro awabi is also called o-gai, which is understood as male awabi or mussel.
The taste of ezo awabi is similar to that of kuro awabi and is also traded as a high-quality ingredient. Since it is a subspecies of kuro awabi, the flavor, texture and aroma are not significantly different. Wild specimens are most palatable in winter, while products from aquaculture are available and tasty all year round.
Megai awabi belongs to the larger species and is preferably used for the preparation of cooked dishes. The meat is noticeably tenderer and less crispy, but for preparation as sushi or sashimi, the taste is inferior to that of kuro- and ezo awabi. The most delicious are megai awabi during the summer time.
Megai awabi is also called female awabi or mussel (me-gai).
Most relevant species for awabi sushi
For the sake of completeness, the Chilean abalone is also mentioned. Although it does not belong to the abalone family, it is called awabimodoki and is used for the preparation of sushi and sashimi.
|Japanese name||Common name|
|Victoria abalone, Australian abalone
Haliotis discus hannai
Haliotis discus discus
|Variously coloured abalone
|Smooth Australian abalone, greenlip abalone
Since the second half of the 19th century, overfishing has led to a sharp decline in stocks. Particularly in Asia, as well as along the west coast of the United Staates and in Australia, some species are commercially bred in aquacultures. The shells of the abalones are valued as decorative objects and as a source of nacre (mother-of-pearl) for jewelry and inlays, among other things.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO FishstatJ, 2020] , the largest share of the world market in 2018 comes mainly from China (83%), followed by South Korea (10%) and Australia (2%).