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The Man and the Mollusk

June 15, 1995|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

Chef Yeung Koon Yat didn't set out to become the Abalone King. He wasn't born to it. He didn't apprentice to a great abalone master. He didn't even like abalone much the first time he tasted it.

But abalone was Yeung's destiny, and once he realized this he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cause. For through abalone, chef Yeung found that he could elevate his native cuisine; he could become a major force in his true passion, Chinese gourmet cuisine. Sun-dried abalone has always been one of the expensive good-luck Chinese texture foods: Chef Yeung, in the kitchen of his Hong Kong restaurant, the Forum, discovered an elaborate braising technique that made it taste good as well.

Chinese cuisine is filled with delicacies that make truffles seem as common as potato chips and foie gras as ordinary as liver and onions. The nests in a proper bird nest soup, for example, come from swallows who make their home only in certain sea caves off the coast of Thailand; a well-known tonic is made from an organism that grows only on the head of a rare beetle. But among the most precious of these luxury items is sun-dried abalone, the best of which comes from Japan, raised in ocean farms off the northwestern and northeastern coasts of Honshu, and dried by a process that is kept secret from the rest of the world (when Australians unsuccessfully tried sun-drying their own abalone a few years ago, investors lost millions).

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If you were to buy the absolute finest sun-dried abalone, of the highest quality and largest size, you could expect to spend for dinner about what you might for a new midsize economy car. Western foodies may recall Craig Claiborne's and Pierre Franey's $4,000 meal for two in Paris, but at one famous Hong Kong banquet, 36 people spent approximately 750,000 HK dollars, and most of that went toward the abalone, which at the time cost about 15,000 HK dollars apiece.

Of course at those prices, abalone, a slow-growing mollusk, rarely has the chance to reach five-figure proportions. More likely, you might buy a smaller abalone, one that could fit into the palm of your hand, and pay somewhere between $150 and $1,000 per mollusk for the privilege.

It's said that if a person eats abalone with fish maw to celebrate Chinese New Year, the reward is a house full of gold and silver. A person might need that reward to pay for sun-dried abalone.

Certainly, the rewards are great for the chef who can master the cooking of such a delicacy. And chef Yeung, who recently traveled to Paris to present his rendering of sun-dried abalone to the new president of France, is looking prosperous indeed on this Friday afternoon. Dressed in an exceptionally well-tailored suit, monogrammed initials discreetly visible on his shirt cuffs, he smiles easily as he faces a roomful of hungry journalists in a banquet room of Harbor Village restaurant in Monterey Park, and explains exactly how one goes about eating such an expensive gourmet delight.

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"It's like savoring the world's best ice cream cone," says Yeung through an interpreter. "This is not something to be eaten in one bite."

Yeung, pantomimes the motion of eating premium abalone, stabbing the prongs of an imaginary fork into an imaginary abalone, and nibbling delicately at the air.

The idea is to eat the abalone in a circular pattern, the outside edge first. Once, when abalone was abundant and prices were low, chefs used to discard the outer portion of the mollusk and serve only the center, the "honey heart," as it is known. But Yeung's way of preparing abalone makes every layer desirable. A connoisseur savors each of the different textures of the shellfish, each bite becoming slightly more yielding until the final bites into the tender core.

It takes 12 hours for Yeung's method to work its magic on abalone. In a clay pot, a humble utensil Chinese use for slow-cooked stews, he creates the coziest of environments for his abalone, first a bamboo sheet, then a layer of spareribs, then more bamboo. The abalone is nestled on top of this, layered with more bamboo and then old, flavorful stewing chicken. Superior stock, the richest in Chinese cuisine, is added sparingly throughout the braising, and cooks down to an ultra-concentrated reduction. The chicken and spare ribs, having given their flavor to the cause of the abalone, are set aside. All that remains for the lucky diner is the abalone itself and the amazing sauce.

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