05 May2008


My mother opened one of the earliest handicraft store chains with their first branch in the departure lounge of the Manila International Airport in the early seventies. Her enterprise grew to seven branches all over Manila on the back of explosive arrivals of Japanese tour groups that would descend on the shop(s), only to have one member pick an item (say an old coconut husk made to look like a shrunken head, example here) and the remaining 39 members of the tour group just HAD to bring the same souvenir home with them. It was a bizarre sight, this mass handicraft shopping, but for many years it yielded mom a healthy profit. More than the money, however, I think she loved those stores for another reason — it gave her a reason to visit the farthest reaches of the Philippine archipelago in search of handicrafts and items to stock in her shops. She had the perfect excuse to be out constantly shopping, and in the process picked some of the best finds for herself! Around 1974-1976, we sold a phenomenal amount of specimen shells, when they were plentiful and before their extraction nearly wiped out whole classes of this wonderful creatures. This was a cottage industry then, benefitting many lower income seaside dwellers, not yet the environmentally incorrect business that it is viewed as today. Mom eventually started a shell collection, and she would go on to acquire some of the rarest shells in the country (and on the planet at the time). Besides the rare collector’s pieces, she built up a broad collection of hundreds if not thousands of common specimens, and it was at that time that I first ran across this unusual shell…


At age 10 or so, I used to spend my free time in one of the stores, whose main focus was specimen shells, and at one point I had memorized the names of hundreds of shells, and dealt with lots of foreign tourists who thought it was “cute” to be attended to by this kid with a bad crew cut who could blurt out scientific names like it was a periodic table. Too bad I wasn’t compensated on a commission basis. :) So I would have known that this particular shell was a haliotis asinina, but that would be all. What I didn’t realize is that it was the shell of an Asian abalone, a prized deicacy in Chinese and other cuisines. Abalones thrive in tropical and temperate waters and this particular specimen is a rather small donkey’s ear abalone. I saw a lady cleaning a whole bunch of them, sitting close to the guy who had just opened up these sea urchins. Abalones have only one shell (as opposed to a clam with two shells) and are really closer to an underwater snail or gastropod or univalve. It has up to 7 holes on the shell through which the animal draws in water and gets its nutrition. With its “foot,” which is the prized edible part of the creature, it clings to the sea floor or coral or rocks.


I didn’t realize until I took this photo that the shell and the meat came from the same source. It turns out that while our local abalones are rather small, they are tasty. What is being cleaned away here are the other inedible bits of the animal. The feet had already been removed and sent of to dealers who accumulate the meat in Northern Cebu, freeze it, then sell it to restaurants in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I have eaten abalone at several Chinese restaurants over the years, but frankly, find it a bit rubbery and the subtle taste is almost always overwhelmed by some salty sauce or other diversion. Maybe I just haven’t had the really good stuff. But like many delicacies in Chinese cuisine, I think texture plays a big role in its popularity…


The inside of the abalone shell has a beautiful nacre, like that of mother of pearl, but in shades of blue and green and silver. The last two photos above, are of a large, polished abalone shell from New Zealand that we received as a gift a few years ago. The abalones from colder waters are larger than the tropical ones and some say that while the foot or meat is abundant, it is less flavorful. I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference, except for the size of the meat. But the shell from New Zealand is absolutely spectacular to look at.



  1. fried-neurons says:

    I love abalone. The only variety I’ve tried is the one that grows on the Northern California coast, though.

    Re: texture… The key is to pound the heck out of the meat (with a lot more force than you would use to pound beef) before cooking, and then cooking it for a very short period of time, because it overcooks SUPER quickly.

    May 5, 2008 | 5:02 am


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  3. tnm says:

    So pretty…it’s called paua by the Kiwis. I used to pick up the small ones by the seashore while living in NZ. I’ve never tried eating one, though.

    May 5, 2008 | 6:57 am

  4. Quillene says:

    Wow! These are so pretty!

    The Philippines really is a treasure trove of the sea’s bounty. If only we would take care of it more!

    May 5, 2008 | 8:22 am

  5. elaine says:

    I can only imagine your mom’s vast collections…museum material, wouldn’t you think? :) I like abalones as well and never thought of its coverings to be this nice!

    May 5, 2008 | 12:37 pm

  6. skyemermaid says:

    while vacationing in surigao, some teenagers at the beach taught me to how eat shells which i suspect were abalone. you take a deep breath, dive into the water, grope the underside of the biggest rock you can find for something that feels like a tiny volcano, pry it off the stone, go up for air, pry the flesh off the underside of the shell and pop into your mouth. yummy!

    May 5, 2008 | 1:05 pm

  7. Mel Wood says:

    In New Zealand, those are called Paua. I didn’t know our own abalone are smaller than New Zealand’s paua shells. I have tasted the paua meat here cooked as fritters and yes, MM, like the abalone meat you’ve tasted, it’s quite rubbery and not that tasty. I also work in a factory here (www.pauashell.co.nz) using the paua shells to make all sorts of novelty items like, fashion jewellery (necklaces, earrings, bracelets), kitchen utensils adorned with the paua shell boards, souvenir items, giftware etc. It’s amazing how the company have made a big industry out of this deep sea shell.

    May 5, 2008 | 3:45 pm

  8. fried-neurons says:

    Hmm… was just looking at those pics again. Based on how it compares with the hand, it looks like the size of a big tahong. Northern CA abalone are much larger. They are quite flavorful, though. Very delicious. Maybe the texture is due to improper cooking. It shouldn’t be boiled or fried, because it will overcook. Only the central part of the creature is eaten. I forget what it’s called. It should be pounded to near-oblivion prior to cooking. Cookingtime should be no longer than 2 minutes per side with an average-sized abalone. Serve with beurre blanc. Yum!!!

    May 5, 2008 | 6:06 pm

  9. Homebuddy says:

    MM you are such a storehouse of information and knowledge! We appreciate your posts which are very interesting and always a source of enlightenment to everyone.

    May 5, 2008 | 7:03 pm

  10. jenny says:

    Friends gave us cans of abalone, from Palawan, they said. We sliced it into strips and cooked it with stir-fried vegetables. It was very tasty.

    May 5, 2008 | 7:21 pm

  11. Apicio says:

    I like the dark irridescent water-painting-like patterns of the penultimate picture reminiscent of the patterns found in certain Japanese swords. Oh you should see what these anal retentive people do with abalone shells: http://www.nakaya.org/special/ekandra.html

    May 6, 2008 | 12:07 am

  12. Marketman says:

    Apicio, omigod, I went to site! The pens are exquisite. Now those are REAL luxury items. jenny, in cans? Where they in water with flavorings, or just plain? Homebuddy, I just blog about what I run across… :) fried neurons, you are right, the local abalones in the pics above are tny compared to the cooler climate abalones. Mel, thanks for that info…and how cool that you work with these shells… skyemermaid, cool, that certainly sounds fresh! elaine, unfortunately, museum quality it is not. A quirk of nature… some of the rarest shells 30 years ago are now more common…they just had to look harder. So a golden cowrie, gloria maris or cypraea guttata that had the oooh factor then is a bit ho-hum now…

    May 6, 2008 | 8:51 am

  13. wil-b cariaga says:

    At Laoag, my grandfather’s sisters owned a handicraft/sari sari store before, and i remember visiting that store when i was a kid, seashells, bamboo, beads, yarn, ribbons and stuff etc., all that are needed to make handicrafts, and at the back of the store there are huge tanks of boiling dye. . . do you remember those bamboo strips you had for home economics for weaving baskets, fans etc.? they dip them there them there for coloring, It was a big business during that time, ever since my grandpa was a kid they already had that store. . .I think the store burned down like 3 times and they have to change the store name after each fire. . . maybe because of superstition or i dunno. . . I remember they named it after my grandpas sons. . .

    May 8, 2008 | 1:55 pm

  14. jesse renen sanchez says:

    actually my dad is an abalone supplier here in palawan… and he is looking for a buyer, if you’re interested just call him at 09397915001>>> his abalone is for export. actually he has a Korean buyer here in Philippines…

    Apr 19, 2010 | 9:05 pm


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