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The Japanese Table

The Enduring Appeal of Abalone

by Tomoya Akimichi

When the women divers known as ama reach the surface of the sea with their catch of abalone, they let out a penetrating whistle. The sight of these local women skipping through the waves, gathering abalone to the sprightly counterpoint of their beach whistles, warms the heart.

Holding her breath, the ama slices through the water to the sea bottom where, amid heavy thickets of vegetation, she searches for abalone. When she finds one, she quickly cleans it with the scraper she carries and places it in a net bag attached to her waist. On average, one dive yields two or three abalone. The divers keep going for several hours—and thus have to be physically tough as well as skilled. Theirs is an occupation that has remained virtually unchanged for generations.

Abalone are found among the coastal reefs running along the Japanese archipelago from Hokkaido to Kyushu. There are four local species: ezo-awabi thrive in the northern coastal waters, and kuro-awabi, mekai-awabi and madaka-awabi are abundant from the central part of Honshu southward to the tip of the island of Kyushu. For the most part, abalone are gathered either by spearing or hooking with an implement wielded from a boat, or by diving and collecting by hand or with the help of a hand-held tool. In Hokkaido and northeast Honshu, abalone-gatherers work mainly from boats; but moving southward from central Honshu down to Kyushu, abalone are harvested by divers. Many of these are women, but east of Tokyo and in parts of Kyushu, men dive as well.

The Savory Abalone

What accounts for the enduring appeal of abalone—and a demand high enough to sustain its legendary (and expensive) cachet? First and foremost, abalone meat is arguably the most delicious among edible shellfish. It can be eaten raw, as sashimi, or as refreshing mizu-gai with the meat cut into small cubes and served in cold water. Prepared as ni-gai, the meat is simmered in soy sauce; as mushi-gai, the meat is steamed to make it tender. Abalone may also be baked in its shell over flame. Another method is to roast the whole meat on a flat iron hotplate.

The entrails of the abalone are especially prized as a rare gourmet luxury. Once, when I was making a survey in Oma, a fishing village in the northernmost reaches of Honshu, I ate an entire bowl of abalone entrails, locally called tottsuru. I am certain that the chance to enjoy such abundance of this sought-after dish comes only once in a lifetime! Many people like salted and fermented abalone entrails to accompany sake or other alcoholic beverages.

If you dry boiled abalone, the result is amber-colored hoshi-awabi (dried abalone). When dried, the natural monosodium glutamate contained in the meat increases, enhancing its delicious flavor. Anyone who has tasted shark fin, sea cucumber or the nest of the swiftlet can appreciate the distinct succulence and pleasant al dente texture of abalone. Its taste brings about a sense of abundant, soul-satisfying well being.

Abalone is treasured in China as well. From the middle of the Edo period (1603-1867) onward, dried abalone was one of Japan’s three major food exports to Qing dynasty China, the other two being shark’s fin and sea cucumbers. In the kitchens of China’s imperial court, dried abalone was reconstituted in water, simmered and served among other dishes “fit for an emperor”; in other proud establishments it was the star of grand banquets. It is interesting to note that, while Japan is a major importer of marine products today, over three hundred years ago abalone harvested from the Sanriku coast of Japan's northeast and off the Goto islands of Kyushu was exported to China, shipped out from Nagasaki. Abalone is still exported today, as it has been for centuries.

Medicinal Virtues

Besides food markets, dried abalone is sold among herbs and other items in medicine shops in Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In China, where food and medicine have long been considered more or less the same thing, abalone is highly valued for its healing powers. It is considered especially good for treating eye disease—particularly the powder made by grinding up the shells. The Wa-Kan Sansai Zue, an illustrated encyclopedia completed in 1712, states that not only the shell powder, but abalone meat is effective in curing diseases of the eye. The medicinal effects of abalone, therefore, seem to be closely related to ophthalmology. Thanks to this double-edged virtue of being good for the eyes and good to the taste buds, demand for this shellfish has never waned.

In ancient times, abalone was presented as a tribute to Japan’s imperial household and to Shinto shrines, as well as to nobles. The Engishiki, an early chronicle documenting ceremonies, rituals and other events at the imperial court of the Heian period (794-1185), relates that abalone was transported to Kyoto and processed in various ways to be used as tax payments in kind. The record mentions as many as forty different kinds of processed abalone; apparently these were either dried or preserved in salt when they were transported. In the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1333-1573) eras, abalone meat was dried and cut into strips (noshi-awabi). Noshi-awabi was considered a precious gift, which was exchanged among samurai families.

In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a time of virtually non-stop warfare among the feudal clans, the samurai class believed that abalone was invigorating, and thus an important source of fighting stamina. During the long peace of the Edo period, on the other hand, noshi-awabi lost its importance as stamina-food for samurai and took on new ritualistic significance. It became symbolic of good fortune and was offered as a New Year’s gift, engagement present or on other auspicious occasions. It was at this time that the custom evolved of fastening strips of dried abalone to congratulatory gift envelopes. Today the noshi-awabi has been replaced by paper substitutes, but the same envelopes with symbolic noshi-awabi attached are still widely used on celebratory occasions. Genuine noshi-awabi are still made; abalone caught off Kuzaki, a fishing village known for its ama, is processed by Shinto priests into dried strips, strictly following the ancient practices.

Clearly, abalone figures in the cultural history of Japan as much more than a choice seafood. In addition to its culinary and medicinal virtues, old records indicate its diverse roles throughout the past—as tax payments, gifts, congratulatory presents, tributes, ritual offerings and more. And yet the old documents make almost no mention of those who dive for abalone. With your next taste of abalone, spare a thought for the nameless women and men who plumb the ocean’s depths to bring forth this delicious gem.

Author's Profile

Tomoya Akimichi is one of Japan's leading maritime anthropologists. He is currently a professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, where his main areas of study focus on Southeast Asia, Oceania and Japan. He is the author of various books and articles on fishing and maritime culture.