Hong Kong Wine

The Abalone sommelier

Jacky Luk, Chief Sommelier at three Michelin-starred Forum Restaurant, talks to Sarah Wong about the local obsession with dried abalone and the best wines to accompany this delicacy.

Jacky Luk, Chief Sommelier at Forum Restaurant, talks about the local obsession with dried abalone and the best wines to accompany this delicacy. Forum Restaurant awarded three Michelin stars in 2019 was founded in 1977 by Yeung Koon Yat better known as the ‘King of Abalone’.

Jacky Luk, chief sommelier at three Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Forum.

Why is dried abalone so highly prized?

Dried abalone is increasingly rare in supply, but it has become more popularly known amongst diners. It is one of the greatest delicacies within Cantonese cuisine and both complicated and time consuming to prepare. Not many chefs have the experience to prepare it.

Does dried abalone benefit from ageing?

Abalone can age for as long as 20 years. Like fine wine ageing brings out more complex and richer, concentrated umami flavour. It also brings out the flavours of the sea. However, it is important to store it well. It can be kept in a fridge and needs to be brought out from time to time to dry under room temperature. If not kept properly it can be infested by insects and mould.

Quality of wine comes from the grapes, and place of origin. For abalone where are the best and what are the key elements of quality?

The best abalone are from Northern Japan. Namely Amidori and Oma Abalone from Aomori Prefecture and Yoshihama Abalone from Iwate Prefecture. Japanese abalone is highly sought after due to the water quality and their ecosystem. South African abalone for example does not have the same quality and concentration of flavours when dried.

For newcomer to dried abalone, prices can be intimidating. Can you give some advice on choosing an abalone dish?

Price of dried abalone is calculated by weight, and the number of heads per catty. The higher the number the smaller the abalone. I recommend ordering the 38 head abalone. This gives you a good impression of flavour and texture of the dried abalone, whilst remaining better value for money.

Describe the flavours of dried abalone.

Eating dried abalone is about the flavours and texture. Flavours are those of the sea, umami, savoury notes. The taste is both sweet, succulent, and savoury. The texture is tender, and firm and a good abalone leaves a long lingering umami finish on the palate. 

Abalone is one of the most prized delicacies in Hong Kong, where a top-grade abalone could cost thousands apiece.

Is the flavour of dried abalone predominantly from the abalone or the cooking method and gravy?

Both the abalone flavour and gravy are equally important. One should not dominate the other.

What are the challenges of pairing dried abalone and wine?

In fact, many wines do not pair well with abalone. It takes time to taste each wine individually along with the abalone dish. It is only recently that diners have started to think about which wines will go well with dried abalone.

What are the best wine pairings? Why?

When looking for a wine to pair, neither wine or abalone should dominate one or another. Ideally the best wine will enhance both the taste of the wine and that of the abalone. In other words, 1+1 =3.  It is not about the price of the wine but there should be a “wow” factor. I found a wine such as Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2011 an exceptionally good match. The longer ageing of the wine and softer tannins enhances both the wine and abalone. Another example is a wine like Gruaud Larose 1994. This is a weaker vintage but has developed tertiary notes and softer tannins. The wine improves in taste along with the abalone. In general wines with less aggressive tannins, and mature wines with umami flavours go well with abalone.

Champagne is an easy option. It will pair with abalone but will not give you the “wow” factor.

Adam Wong is the chef at the three Michelin-starred restaurant and an Abalone fanatic.

Relate some of the worse pairings that you have experienced? Why?

A client once had a young Lafite with steamed fish and dried abalone. The tannins were too aggressive, and it spoilt the taste of both the food and wine. The client complained about the food and I suggested he try another wine. He was receptive to my comment and was pleasantly surprised.

What is your wine recommendation for abalone both fresh as in sashimi, cooked abalone (canned)?

For sashimi and canned abalone in broth, pick a white wine such as Riesling. A wine with good acidity and no dominant oak tannins. A Chablis would also work quite well.

What is the most versatile white and red wine you would pick that would complement most of your dishes at Forum? 

I would pick a dry Riesling for example from Rheinhessan. It will go well with fried food, seafood, and vegetables. The highlight is abalone, and most diners will order the abalone as the main course. I would suggest a traditionally aged Rioja or an aged Bordeaux from 1970s or 1980s.

Last abalone tip?

When eating the abalone cut it vertically in the middle from one end to another. The centre of the abalone is more tender and flavourful. It will indicate the abalone’s quality.

Sarah Wong is a freelance wine writer and judge. Born and educated in Hong Kong, her wine knowledge and expertise have developed through extensive education, tasting and competition judging. She has been a long-standing wine judge for Cathay Pacific Wines and Spirits Challenge and Decanter Asia Wine Awards. She also writes for South China Morning Post. Other than wine, Sarah's passion lies in adventure travel, and she can often be found in the mountains of Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kyrygstan and the Himalayas.

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