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Big Island Abalone's business booms


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POSTED: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nothing can be all things to all people, but Big Island abalone hits the mark on many fronts. The sustainable ocean product is top quality yet economically priced, allowing it to make appearances in home kitchens as well as on the tables of fine-dining restaurants. An added bonus: Even its food source is locally produced.

This year, Big Island Abalone, opened in 1997, will farm and sell some 45 tons of abalone, with as much as 40 percent of sales made locally. The rest is shipped to Japan. Both there and here, abalone has historically been pricey and, therefore, a delicacy.

But today, abalone lovers can indulge their hankering for the chewy, succulent seafood every week at Kapiolani Community College and Blaisdell Center farmers' markets, where grills are lighted and customers can buy two smaller abalone, in 1 1/2 - to 2-inch shells, for $5. The smoky treat is served in its own shell.

The farmers' markets also sell live abalone in bags of six pieces for $10 (small size) and individually for $6 (large size, with an approximately 3 1/2 -inch shell).

“;It's the top of the list as far as quality products go,”; says Reid Fukumoto, a former executive chef for Morton's Steakhouse and now a personal chef. “;This abalone is fresh, sweet and prices are very reasonable.”;

Fukumoto says he prepares the abalone two ways: raw, as sashimi, or grilled and served with chili pepper water and soy sauce.

For those who haven't yet tasted the product, Big Island Abalone will make an appearance this weekend at the State Farm Fair's Ag-Tastic Expo at Bishop Museum.

THE FARM is in Kona, where the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority pumps cold sea water from a 3,000-foot depth to mix with warm surface water and achieve a 64-degree temperature, optimum for growing abalone.

Hiroshi Arai, CEO of Big Island Abalone, says it takes 2 1/2 years to grow abalone.

“;We grow them in 32 tanks, each with eight to 12 cages. Each cage has plastic plates, and the abalone stick to them like they do onto rocks in nature,”; he says.

The abalone start out their life cycle hatching from eggs. Those larvae are kept in nursery tanks for eight months, then are transferred to bigger tanks, where they live for 22 months.

“;Every weekday, we harvest red algae and put it on top of the cages. The abalone move to the top to eat them,”; says Arai.

That algae is another facet of the sustainable operation. It was developed specifically for the farm by scientists who founded the company. Since most of the founders hail from Oregon State University, the company joined with the school to develop the special strain.

“;One reason the company was formed in Kona is because there's plenty of sunlight in Kona. It's a good place to grow abalone feed,”; Arai says. “;This abalone is fed natural algae, which gives it its excellent flavor. The meat is clean and clear, and even the shells are beautiful. That's why the abalone is served in its shell at restaurants. People pay attention to everything. Eye appeal is very important.”;

FOR MOST OF its existence, Big Island Abalone's market was almost exclusively Japanese. But two years ago, with increased competition globally and a weakened Japanese economy, the farm decided to target Hawaii. It was a good business decision, Arai says.

In the past six months, the Big Isle abalone has been in restaurants, sushi bars, farmers' markets and Don Quijote, Tamashiro Market and Marukai. Plus, they hold farm tours in Kona.

“;Hawaii has a lot of potential,”; says Arai. “;We are very encouraged.”;

COOKING ABALONE

Before cooking, blanch abalone in hot water for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Shuck and remove gonads if preferred.

» Grilling: Place abalone back in shell and grill shell-side down for 3 minutes on medium heat. Season with butter alone or with garlic, ginger, soy sauce or chili pepper.

» Stir-fry: Slice abalone into bite-size pieces and stir-fry with preferred seasonings, or with vegetables or noodles.

» Steaming: Place in steamer with or without shell. Top with desired seasonings, such as butter, garlic, ginger, olive oil or green onions.

» Sashimi style: Blanch, slice to desired thickness and serve with dipping sauce.

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For information on tours of the Kona farm, call 989-8852.