Noma has swept a wind of change through our kitchens.
Their (self-proclaimed and heavily subsidized) mission was to put Australia on the plate. Drawing on culinary traditions and native ingredients without fear or favour, Rene Redzepi and his team painted an image of Australia’s culinary culture.
It required a level of introspection many Australian chefs had perhaps been loath to show. It required a cultural abandon that perhaps they couldn’t show. Irrespective of the method, it is clear the exercise drew out questions, ideas and inspiration. It has been an extraordinary time for native produce, for chefs and for our kitchens.
One dish that encapsulated this combination of native ingredient and cultural cringe was the abalone schnitzel. A mainstay of the Australian pub menu, the ‘schnitty’ is likely to have found its way on to Australian tables following the post-WWII wave of immigration from Europe. The abalone, on the other hand, had been a part of the Australian diet for many, many years before that.
Also known as mutton fish, abalone has been a part of aboriginal diets for thousands, in fact probably tens of thousands, of years. Their distinctive flat, oval shells, replete with mother of pearl inlay, have been discovered in middens along Australia’s coastline.
Favouring cold waters with high salt content, regular tidal movement and abundant seaweed forrests (for food), the southern Australian coastline provides one of the world’s best natural environments for abalone. This is reflected in industry: Victoria has served as an important abalone fishery since the late 1950s, while Tasmania now supplies around a quarter of the annual world abalone harvest.
This is in part due to the overfishing of abalone stocks around the globe. As abalone is highly prized, and can reach pretty impressive prices at market (up to ???), many abalone fisheries have been plundered by poachers on top of the commercial market, leaving them decimated.
We are certainly not immune, however Abalone fishing is heavily protected in Australia, with commercial diving licenses limited by quantity of the haul and size of the shell, and also regulated to protect breeding grounds. Recreational divers can also brave the elements (and often shark infested waters) to prize the muscle from rocks, but their haul is also severely limited (it varies state to state).
A prized delicacy, particularly in Japan and China, abalone is somewhat similar to squid in regards to flavour and texture. It also reacts in a similar manner when cooked and benefits from super quick flash frying or long and slow braising. Anything in between and it is too tough and chewy to be enjoyable.
Select and store –
We have four key varieties of abalone in Australia: greenlip, blacklip, brownlip and Roe’s abalone. There is a farmed cocktail size now also available. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on fresh, live abalone Stephanie Alexander suggests storing them like you would live oysters - in a wet hessian bag in a cool spot.
To clean the abalone slide a sharp knife under the muscle to separate it from the shell. Generally you will then cut out the v-shaped stomach (although in some cultures this is kept in place and eaten with the rest of the abalone). Scrubbing the surface of the abalone is also suggested to remove the coloured membrane and frill around the edge.
Abalone is then most often sliced very finely for quick cooking, or a little wider for a long braise. It is often tenderized with a meat mallet to help break down the muscle fibres.
Abalone love –
Soy sauce, mirin, ginger, sake, garlic, butter