Foraging is the new black.
No longer solely a pastime of individual or community hippies, herbalists, naturalists or ethnic groups – foraging is going mainstream and from the highly specialised and exclusive kitchens of Noma to local commercial kitchens, foraged food is finding its way onto menus and plates everywhere.
We’re all attending a foraging tour organised by Federico Zanellato of Ormeggio and hosted by naturalist, weeds expert and aficionado, Diego Bonetto – the second attendance from me, as my first was a year ago at the Casula Powerhouse museum. Held on an unseasonably sunny spring day, it was a spirited if eclectic talk as we all trundled after Diego as he foraged for weeds, pointing out the different types that were edible – amongst them chickweed, dandelion, plaintain and many an other leaf that were commonly foraged for and sold at markets in Italy that seemed to only possess a latin name. Erstwhile, there were long diatribes on weeds from how we classified a weed to how we’ve come to know only a handful of edible plants – the large monocultures. And all this was liberally peppered with personal anecdotes; bursts of Italian; and even the occasional loud bark to silence some noisy cawing crows. And it was clearly intriguing stuff with all the chefs engaged, asking questions and periodically sampling, collecting bits of weed and scribbling down notes.
But not all foraging is equal. You could forage for flora and foliage but of all the edible species out there, sadly, much of what I’ve found is insipid. Despite great hopes, many of the edible weeds I’ve come across taste bitter and “green” like blades of toxin-laden grass. Wild berries can be a tad better if you find plump thickets and mushrooms of course can make for a thrilling hunting experience and if you’re lucky a filling rewarding meal to boot. But for the best foraging I head to the seashore where sea plants and grasses, molluscs and shells, crustaceans, fish and more abound.
On our last foraging trip on the south coast we not only found sea urchins, but something even more exciting, something that spoke volumes to my inherent pure Chinese genes: abalone! Abalone is highly revered by the Chinese as a gourmet delicacy as it is thought to have magical health promoting properties (and let’s be honest, what doesn’t in Chinese cuisine) and as such commands high market prices. Such is their value that they considered luxury items given as gifts and it even leads the oft quoted Chinese phrase listing the four revered traditional dried delicacies “abalone, ginseng, shark’s fin and fish maw“(otherwise known more descriptively as swim bladder).
Of course, I have had tasty abalone dishes – my favourite being the slow boiled herbal chicken and abalone broth my mother used to make for me as a treat whenever my energy was particularly low or when recovering from sickness. The abalone always lent such a sweet, meaty depth of flavour to the broth. But truth be told, I actually don’t care much for the taste or texture of abalone.
Yet so ingrained is the reverence for the abalone, that the mere thought of foraging for free abalone sent frissons of excitement through me. Had I heeded some attention to the loud thought “wait till my mother sees this!” then perhaps I would understand the overwhelming motivation behind that excitement, but then I’d probably have to commit myself to sessions on a therapist’s couch somewhere too.
The abalone foraging excitement was not mine alone – racing around the rocky shoreline were my friends, snooping around the rock crevices abound with large abalone, exposed and in easy foraging reach. My knowledge of abalone were that they inhabited deep, frigidly cold and often dangerous waters patrolled by sharks. The divers employed to harvest them from the depths are paid in danger money for their efforts if the occasional news report about shark attacks on abalone divers are anything to go by. So I wasn’t sure by what miraculous turn of fortune had led to an abundant crop of these abalone sitting plain as day on these rocks, ripe for my foraging harvest. Of course, this led to a bit of research on the abalone.
Did you know:
- The abalone is not actually a clam or mussel as many believe, but are actually a type of large marine snail called a gastropod belonging to the mollusc family.
- And they’re actually found over a wider range of habitations than I’d thought: from the shallow waters surrounding rocky shorelines (that’s where we are!) to deep waters 40-50m deep. And they seem just as comfortable in their cold water homes as tropical water.
- They’re light evading vegetarians that can be found hidden under rocky outcrops and crevasses using their raspy tongue called a radula to feed on algae
- They have a meaty body and suction foot which they use to attach themselves securely to rock surfaces, with a suction force up to 4000 times their body weight
- Abalone are in high demand internationally and particularly in Asian markets. In Australia it currently represents the 4th most valuable fisheries export after lobsters, tuna and pearls.
- There are approximately 50 species of abalone in the world, and at least 23 of these can be found in Australia.
- There are two main species of abalone harvested in Australia – the two largest – the greenlip abalone (Haliotis laevigata) and the blacklip abalone (Haliotis ruber), so named for the respective green or black colouring of the “lip” edge of the body or foot.
- The greenlip is favoured in Chinese markets, whilst the Japanese prefer the blacklip
- Both green and blacklip abalone can be found in the cooler southern waters around Australia, but the blacklip is more evenly distributed and being the main abalone found in NSW, it forms the basis of the NSW abalone fishery.
- You need a fishing license to forage to abalone in most states, and legal sizes and bag limits apply. In NSW, in addition to regional limitations, the bag limit or maximum number you can legally take is two, and the minimum legal length is 11.7cm but blacklip abalone have been known to grow to 22cm in shell length!
Based on colouration of the black lip on the abalone we were foraging for and confirmed by the research above, I was certain we had found some large blacklip abalone. We collected a small shortlist of the largest candidates we’d hunted down then selected the 2 largest, ensuring they were above the legal size limit. And as the video below shows, I was wrong to think they were slow creatures incapable of sudden movements!
Then as my fellow foragers were only interested in the forage not the eating, I promptly called home to announce my large abalone catch to my parents and to ask about recipes. We dropped into my parents’ home on the way back from the south coast and like a proud hunting canine, my chest puffed up proudly I unveiled them to my very excited mother.
She took one look at my proud catch and started guffawing openly at me. She called my father over and he too added his laughter to the mirth, slapping his thigh for extra effect. They laughed so hard, that I kid you not, they were gasping for air and tears were streaming down their faces as I stood there deflating.
When my mother finally regained a little composure, she patted me on the shoulder condescendingly and then removed an enormous abalone twice the size of my catch from the freezer – no doubt one of those 22cm monsters. “That is not an abalone”, she declared, “this is an abalone.”
When I protested that it wasn’t meant to be a competition, she tutted and promised she would cook up my little abalone for me. No! These precious, hard earned foraged abalone deserved more than a pity toss in the wok. So I retracted my gift and, tail between my legs, I took them home to cook and care for the abalone myself, the amused Co-pilot at my side to comfort me from the brunt of tactless Chinese parenting.
I decided to use my precious cargo in another classic Chinese abalone dish – abalone and chicken congee, slow cooking the abalone for many hours until the tough mollusc gave up the ghost and softened to a sumptuous mass that fell apart with a prod. To boost the abalone flavour I even bought 5 tiny farmed baby abalone at $3 a pop to accompany their wild larger counterparts.
In my family we generally have congee or rice porridge for breakfast so with the aid of an electronic slow cooker we set up congee the night before and cook for about 10 – 12 hours so that it is ready for breakfast the next morning. Abalone will benefit from very long periods of slow cooking and some recipes call for 48 hours of braising for the penultimate squishy soft abalone result. So this recipe will take 12 – 18 hours of cooking (depending of course on when you want to wake up for breakfast).
First of all though, I would need to clean them – something I had no idea how to do. A little research later and I was standing over the sink, a wooden spoon in hand ready to shuck the squirming live snail from its shell.
How to prepare live abalone:
Slow cooked abalone and chicken congee
Ingredients (serves 4):
- 3 small abalone, (we have used 2 medium sized abalone and 5 baby abalone), cleaned and scrubbed
- 1/2 small chicken, or a whole spatchcock, skin removed
- 1 cup rice
- 1.5L water
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- White pepper
- Handful of coriander, leaves picked and stems finely chopped to garnish
- Small knob of ginger, finely sliced to garnish
- Soy sauce and red vinegar to taste
- If using dried or canned abalone – prepare as per instructions. If using live abalone, clean and scrub them first. Ease a wooden spoon under the foot until the spoon touches the base where the foot it connected to the shell. Use the spoon as leverage and shuck the abalone out of the shell. Wash the abalone then cut off the liver, mouth parts, and excess lip. Use a clean kitchen scrubber or edge of knife to scrub the colour off the lip as this will discolour the dish if left on.
- Once all the abalone are clean and scrubbed, cover the chicken in a pot of cold water and bring to the boil. This is to boil off excess protein and blood as scum. Blanche for no more than a minute or so as you don’t want to actually cook the chicken.
- Removing the chicken from the pot and transfer to the slow cooker, add all the abalone, cover with the 1.5L of warm water and bring to the boil.
- Whilst waiting for the water to boil, wash the rice and marinate with a drizzle of vegetable oil and a pinch of salt. Marinate for as long as the water takes to boil
- When the water comes to the boil, add in the marinated rice and boil for another 10 minutes. Switch the slow cooker down to a low heat setting and leave for 12 – 18 hours (purely depending on when you want to wake up for breakfast).
- Remove the abalone from the congee and slice thinly. Set aside.
- Remove the chicken carcass from the congee carefully as you’ll find it very fragile after such long periods of cooking and shred all the meat off the carcass. Return the chicken meat to the congee and stir through. Season to taste with salt and ground white pepper.
- Ladle into bowls, top with the sliced abalone, garnish with coriander and ginger and serve.
We ended up cooking the abalone for the full 18 hours, by which time, it seemed soft to touch (especially the baby ones) and even the bones of the chicken had softened. The Co-pilot took one taste of the congee and emphatically declared it the best congee he’d ever tasted. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to make up for my parents’ less than encouraging response but after tasting the congee myself, I realised that the congee had been infused with an incredibly rich chicken and meaty, sweet flavour and colour that I attributed to the abalone. And the abalone itself was so sinfully soft it yielded without protest to my bite like a large meaty chunk of soft liver. Personally I like adulterating my congee with condiments, and to my palate I find seafood based congee dishes benefit from a liberal splash of red vinegar to give it a zippy tang – something I’ve adopted from the Thai version of congee which is served with vinegar pickled sliced birds eye chillies.
With the tune of appreciative murmurs flowing freely, I think we did our foraged wild abalone justice with this recipe.
In case you’re thinking of asking, no – no chance, I’m not sharing the specific location of the magical abalone land. I did regale some relatives with just the story and photos of my foraged abalone haul, and without fail, each labelled me an idiot for not having taking every single abalone I came across. Alas, I fear my own unscrupulous relatives are fair representations of many keen fisher-people who don’t practice sustainable fishing and foraging and I would rather not be responsible for the decimation of the abalone population.
Lastly, as promised a few posts ago, the Eating and Drinking Guide to Sydney competition closed at the end of September and the five winners have been decided! Congratulations to Shaz, Erina, Vivian, Gaby and Emmanuel! I will be in touch shortly to send out your prizes!by