What is Abalone?

Looking for an abalone.

The abalone is a gastropod found in most of the world’s oceans and enjoyed as a culinary delicacy among Japanese and West Coast residents of the United States, among others. Due to concerns about over-harvesting, many nations have limits on the amount that can be caught and some entrepreneurs have opened abalone farms so they can be harvested and sold legally. Like other edible gastropods, the part that is eaten is the large, muscular foot, which forms most of the body.

Piece of abalone meat.

An abalone is a univalve, which means it has one shell, rather than two symmetrical shells like clams and oysters. The shell is a slightly flattened whorl, similar to an ear, with a slightly raised apex at the center of the whorl. Along one edge of the shell are small holes to support breathing, and the creature hides inside the shell, clinging to rocks with its foot as it searches for algae and other food sources. If the abalone can be ripped off a rock, the entire bottom of the foot will be exposed. The inside of a shell resembles mother-of-pearl and is often used for ornamental purposes in jewelry and inlays, while the outside of the shell is reddish-brown. Most hosts seaweed and smaller molluscs in their shells for camouflage.

Haliot shell exterior.

The abalone reproduces by releasing eggs or sperm into open water. Typically, large groups gather in a single location to do this, increasing the fertilization exchange. The fertilized eggs form larvae called veligers, which roam the ocean for approximately two weeks until they turn into baby abalone and look for rocks to make their homes. If they grow to maturity, they can get quite large and will develop interesting occlusions in their shells as a result of encounters with rocks and other organisms.

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abalone buttons.

In many regions, there is a size limit for abalone to avoid harvesting juvenile specimens. The size limit varies according to local regulations, and many areas also have a general catch limit that a fisherman cannot exceed in a season. Cultivated abalone is not subject to these regulations. In any case, once one has been plucked from a rock, it must itself be peeled and trimmed, leaving the edible foot behind.

Haliot shells.

Since the foot is a muscle, it needs to be softened before being eaten. Most cooks soften the entire foot by tapping it with mallets before cutting it into thin slices and tapping it again. A classic method of preparation involves breading and frying, but some adventurous cooks add it to pasta sauces or make sushi with the rich white meat. Breaded and fried abalone is delicious hot or cold, served with a lemon wedge, and is a popular food in California in particular.

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