Fishing: Juicy tips for the world's most succulent seafood

By Geoff Thomas

Paua sliced and baked for two hours with onions and garlic can be cut with a fork. Photo / Geoff Thomas
Paua sliced and baked for two hours with onions and garlic can be cut with a fork. Photo / Geoff Thomas

"That is the sweetest, softest paua I have ever eaten," exclaimed JB, one of the visitors from Auckland. "How do you cook it so it comes out like that?"

And so began a lesson in how to handle paua - and crayfish - when freshly harvested.

The lesson took place on a remote section of our rocky coast about eight hours' drive from Auckland. As anonymity is important in this case or our host will be besieged by phone calls, the actual location must remain undisclosed and to avoid identification he will be referred to as "Paua Pete". These details are not as relevant as the lessons disclosed after generations of harvesting kaimoana (seafood). This reference will reveal at least some of the history.

Over the years we have experienced kaimoana harvesting throughout the country, from North Cape to Bluff and the Chatham Islands. And in each region people have their own approach to the challenging question of how to cook paua so it does not have the consistency of a rubber retread.

Known as abalone in other parts of the globe, paua belongs to the sea snail family and it is the large, flat foot which is the hugely prized delicacy, bringing exorbitant prices in Asian countries.

Some paua gatherers dispatch their catch with a sharp blow from a rock in the back of the shell. Others will stick a knife into the middle of the foot; a bit like the iki dispatch of a fresh-caught snapper where a sharp instrument is thrust into the brain.

Paua have also been dropped into the hot water where crayfish have been cooked. The object is to try to deliver instant death, so the muscles relax.

Then there is the popular smashing of the paua once it has been removed from the shell. This can be done with a small rock against a large rock, or by wielding a chunk of wood like an axe handle with the shellfish wrapped in a bag or tea-towel. This separates the fibres in the muscle and should ensure that the cooked dish is a tender delicacy.

But how best to cook our fresh-caught and tenderised paua?

Sliced and fried in a deep pan or wok, with cream added, is a popular approach. But it can turn ugly if over-cooked.

Pete served paua whole, simply dipped in flour and fried over a medium heat for two and a half minutes each side. The result was a delicate, soft mouthful of exquisite flavour with each bite. A knife was not even needed. We suspect there may have been another trick to this dish, but Pete just smiled.

The next night he put a dish on the table which was even more delicate. You could cut it with a fork.

This was a surprise to all of the hunters, who were visiting the wild coast to hunt stags. The paua had been sliced and baked. Yes, baked.

Pete explained: "It is easy. Just slice into thick slices, put into a baking dish, add sliced onions and garlic, and bake it at about 150 degrees for two hours. It must be covered with foil."

When cooked the dish was half full of juices from the paua, and it was heaven on the plate, and the palate.

Another tip from Pete: "Never wash your paua in fresh water."

Then came the crayfish. This part of the coast is well protected as access is strictly controlled, but if some kaimoana is needed for a special occasion like a tangi or birthday celebration then visitors are welcomed.

But when the local boys waded out at low tide and picked up two cray pots in waist-deep water the Aucklanders just shook their heads. "These guys aren't diving, they're walking!" said JB. "They even have gumboots on, not flippers!"

It was even suggested they were fishing in a paddling pool, referring to the narrow gut which split the reef.

Then they did a sort of dive as they slipped under the surface and felt under the hanging kelp for paua. It is easy to measure the crays and paua in these conditions.

Back at the ranch kaumatua Pete prepared the crays. Like most kaimoana, it is a fine line between perfection on the plate and a dried-out, chewy product.

He dispatches his crayfish by drowning them in a bucket of fresh water. They simply use up all of the oxygen and die. We have seen them killed by a version of the iki method, where a section of the feeler is broken off, reversed and slipped back into the stub to penetrate what passes for a brain. It is not as effective as drowning.

Then they are dropped into boiling, salted water (and sea water is best if available) and when the water returns to the boil they are cooked for exactly seven minutes.

Then, another Pete trick: "Put them straight into cold water to bring down the temperature quickly. Otherwise they keep cooking in the shell and dry out."

When serving your crayfish there are many options, from tearing them apart and simply devouring the sweet flesh, to mornay in a white cheese sauce, to split in half lengthways and pan fried in garlic butter.

The white, fleshy tails were bursting with juice and flavour.

And the stags were roaring and the dogs found the wild pork.

So much kai to take home.

- NZ Herald

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