When the women divers known as Ama reach the surface of the sea with their catch of abalone, they let out a penetrating whistle.
This occupation has remained virtually unchanged for generations, some say for thousands of years it has been practiced. Ama are Japanese female divers that slice their way through the waters to the sea bottom where, amid heavy thickets of vegetation they search for abalone. When they finds one, quickly it is cleaned with a scraper, and placed it in a netted bag attached to their waist.
Abalone are found among the coastal reefs running along the Japanese archipelago from Hokkaido to Kyushu. There are four local species: ezo-awabi thrive in the northern coastal waters, and kuro-awabi, mekai-awabi and madaka-awabi are abundant from the central part of Honshu southward to the tip of the island of Kyushu.
In Hokkaido and northeast Honshu, abalone-gatherers work mainly from boats; south of central Honshu down to Kyushu, abalone are harvested by divers. Many of these are women, but east of Tokyo and in parts of Kyushu, men dive as well.
Here is the finest being de-shelled and cleaned. A quick washing leaves the liver in perfect tact. You can use it to make a sauce, referred to as “ponzu”, a dipping sauce for sashimi, it is sublime. In fact, the liver can be eaten as is, the grey part pointed sac is the liver – see video.
Last week I tasted the liver at Mitani’s counter; the chef was working while we stayed and chatted with him, as I leaned over the counter to watch, he handed me a piece to try.
Abalone has a natural content of monosodium glutamate contained in the meat, and it increases its taste when cooked. Anyone who has tasted shark fin, or sea cucumber in a raw state can appreciate the “al dente” texture of abalone. Its taste brings about an experience few have tried, or forgotten after tasting it.