What are Abalone?
In The Sound of Waves, a peddler
proposes a contest between Japanese pearl diving women, offering a
fancy-looking ostrich-skin or cobalt handbag to whoever collects the
most abalone. Japanese
abalone, opposed to the three to five inch larger red abalone, are a
small type of mollusk. Also known as “sea ears” referring to their flat shell,
Japanese abalone live in the rocky reefs of the Western Pacific.
Their color ranges from varieties of dark olive green dappled
with dark red, brown, and lighter green on the outer shell to a pearl
color on the inner shell. They
grow to an average of about three inches and weigh up to three and half
abalone are found in the ten-meter depth of low tide where they feed on
the algae that grows on the rocky bottoms of coral reefs.
Due to the broken shells and rough coral, Uta-Jima pearl divers suffer from many foot wounds.
“foot” by which abalone cling to rocks is the edible portion, the
adductor muscle. This part
of the mollusk is pounded to tenderize before cooking.
Abalone can be obtained fresh, canned, dried, or salted.
Fresh abalone should still be alive, which can be tested by
touching the exposed muscle to see if it twitches.
When fresh, one should choose relatively small and sweet, not
fishy smelling, abalone. Best
sautéed, this mollusk must be cooked about a day within purchase.
However, when dried abalone is used in traditional Japanese
dishes like awabi sakami, meaning “Sweet-Cooked Abalone,” it must be
soaked for several days before using.
All abalone should be cooked very briefly (only about twenty to
thirty seconds) to prevent tough meat.
1901 did fifteen divers from Wakayama-ken region in Western Japan
institute the first abalone fishery.
These divers used large, open rowboats containing a crew of five
to six men, equipped with Japanese helmets and a hand pump to compress
air down to the diver. Divers used pry bars to remove the abalone from the rocks, store the
catch in a net sack, and tie a rope lifeline so the “tender”, or the
diver’s assistant on the boat above, could haul up a sixty pound sack
and send it back empty.
with Japan, other countries such as America, China, Australia, New
Zealand, and South Africa, have continued to modernize the fishery with
engine-driven boats equipped with motorized air compressors.
In The Sound of Waves, the women lack any equipment other
then their bare hands. Due
to California’s population explosion post-World War II, Japanese and
red abalone became a booming industry until
California banned the commercial harvesting of abalone in 1997 due to
over-production, pollution, and sea otters bringing abalone to near
Hawaii’s Big Island Abalone Corporation has made up for California’s
absence, yielding about a $1.2 million harvesting of Japanese abalone.