WORKING ON THE idea that the best rustic dishes convey a sense of place, this recipe speaks to the wider Pacific from Wellington’s wild south coast.
Just ten minutes’ drive from parliament, Wellington’s south coast is a series of beaches and rocky outcrops winding around the fringes of suburbia from Ōwhiro Bay to Scorching Bay.
It’s famous among recreational divers who forage for crayfish, abalone and sea urchins among the swaying underwater forest of seaweed.
The coast borders Cook Strait, where the cold ocean currents from the south meet warmer currents coming down from the north.
Species of seaweed overlap at their northern and southern limits, in a riot of diversity: almost half of New Zealand’s 850 species are found here.
The rarest and most delicious of these belongs to the genus Caulerpa, commonly known as sea grapes, since their tiny caviar-sized beads do indeed resemble bunches of miniature grapes. Having a cucumber-like flavour and a satisfyingly crunchy texture, it’s the only New Zealand seaweed palatable raw, straight from the rocks, without any processing or cooking. In fact, sea grapes shouldn’t be cooked, or they begin to melt and lose their crunch.
A recognised delicacy throughout the Pacific, these sea grapes are cultivated in the Philippines and harvested from the wild in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. At the Apia market, sea grapes are bundled into banana leaves and sold as limu, later to appear draped over fillets of fish at Apia restaurants, or mixed with fermented coconut as a domestic snack.
The New Zealand sea grape is even tinier than those found in the Pacific islands, arguably making it the most aesthetically pleasing, both in texture and appearance.
On Wellington’s south coast, it can be found in isolated rockpools at low tide, near the masses of kelp that provide food for pāua, one of many species of the genus Haliotis found around the Pacific. It’s a close relative of the Tasmanian black lipped abalone and distantly related to Japanese abalone and the eight species on the west coast of North America.
DESPITE THE PREDATIONS of poachers, legally sized pāua are still to be found in the crevices of rocks on the south coast, buried deep within the underwater forests of seaweed.
The remaining two ingredients for this dish are found struggling against the salt winds on the pebbly foreshore – wild silverbeet (Swiss chard, a hardy mainstay of every Kiwi backyard vegetable garden) and samphire (Salicornia australis), a knobbly succulent whose close relative is gathered from the wild in East Anglia for the smart seafood restaurants of London. Like the other main ingredients for the dish, both samphire and wild silverbeet come ready salted.
The challenge is to arrive at the beach armed only with butter, oil, garlic and a frying pan.
The fulfilment is to build a driftwood fire on the foreshore, using dried seaweed for kindling, then forage all the main ingredients for this recipe in the time it takes to reduce the flames to embers.
Having sent your companions to gather the greens, don your wetsuit, mask and snorkel (but not tanks, which are forbidden for pāua fishing). Then, fighting the swirling swell, dive down and prise your daily quota of ten abalone from the rocks, using the pāua knife issued free of charge by the MAF fisheries inspector who may well be waiting for you as you emerge from the water with your catch. These knives are made of blunt plastic, so won’t harm the pāua if it proves to be undersized and needs to be put back. Once cut or grazed, an abalone will haemmorhage and bleed to death.
Anybody who has single-handedly eaten a fully grown New Zealand pāua will concede it’s a great fist-sized hunk of richness: if you were foolish enough to eat two, you might well begin to feel sick.
So for our party of four, I set aside four and put the remaining six pāua back in the bucket, covered with water to keep them alive, and intern them for special Japanese treatment back home.
At this stage, if I were a hearty Kiwi bloke, I’d wrench the beast from its beautiful mother-of-pearl shell, leaving its gut-bag behind.
Unsurprisingly, with the shock of disembowelment, the pāua seizes up and dies in an instant, after which no amount of beating will tenderise it.
That’s why to this day, Kiwi blokes crank pāua through a hand mincer set up on the wooden fence of their weekend bach. The ensuing chips of car tyre go into a Kiwi national dish, pāua patties, which forever perpetuate the national myth that pāua are inherently rubbery. Everybody gets the cuisine they deserve.
Actually, abalone needn’t be tough at all: here’s how Chatham Islands paua fishermen shuck and tenderise their abundant resource.
Slide your thumb down into the shell behind the flesh and feel for the foot.
Using your thumbnail, very gently ease this thick stalk away from the shell and carefully remove the pāua with its gut-bag intact, so the animal remains alive outside its shell, and visibly squirms and quivers upon the clean tea towel which becomes its death shroud.
Wrap the pāua in this tea towel, deliver the last rites, then using a large wooden mallet or a length of four-by-two, whack it two or three times only.
Voila, tender pāua. Remove and discard the sac of semi-digested kelp, then feel for the beak and innards, and pull them out too.
Wash the pāua meat and slice thinly. Amateur cooks will find it easiest to slice vertically, into thin cross-sections, whereas a skilled chef might slice horizontally, into elegant oval-shaped fillets. Set the raw pāua aside.
Now take the silverbeet, wash it in sea water, cut the stalk away from the leaf in a V, and finely slice both stalk and leaf.
Put the frying pan on the fire, heat a little oil of your choice and gently sauté the chopped stalks for a few minutes. Cover the pan, place towards the outside of the fire, and leave them to braise in their own juices for fifteen minutes. Stir in a good knob of butter and two cloves of chopped garlic near the end. Transfer the stalks and their juice to a bowl and set aside.
Wipe out the frying pan and replace over the embers of the fire. Add more oil and four cloves of chopped garlic, sauté the silverbeet leaves for several minutes, then cover and leave to steam in their own juices until tender, about eight minutes. Stir in a knob of butter, remove these leaves and set aside in a bowl.
Place some water in the frying pan, cover and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and plunge in the stalks of samphire. Leave for thirty seconds only, or until they turn bright emerald green, then remove and plunge into cold sea water, to set the colour. Drain and set the samphire aside.
Place the frying pan back over the embers, add some more oil and fry the slices of pāua briefly, only a minute or two per side.
Now assemble the dish: on each of four plates, place a bed of silverbeet stalks and cover with the green leaves. Cover with the cooked pāua and strew four stalks of blanched samphire over each plate, topping it with a bunch of raw sea grapes.
Back in your kitchen at home, submit the remaining six pāua to the method recommended by the famous Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda. It’s an adaptation of the technique used by his grandparents, who fished traditionally for abalone in Japan, using water glasses and long rods with special hooks.
Put the live pāua flesh side down in a large frying pan, preferably of heavy cast iron, without any oil or butter, and turn the element down to its lowest possible heat. Cover the frying pan with a lid and leave the pāua to their sauna. Don’t disturb the pāua in the early stages, or you yourself may be disturbed by the sight of pāua writhing about in their death throes.
Leave the pāua for about thirty minutes, or until the shells are hot to the touch. Smaller species of abalone, such as those found in Japanese waters, will only need about ten minutes.
By now, the gut-bag will have cooked and shrunk, and can be conveniently removed and discarded, along with the pāua’s beak and digestive tract. Best of all, the pāua meat will be fully cooked and tender, while the frilly lip, normally the toughest part of the beast, will have turned to jelly.
For more treasures from the deep, read ‘The lobster’s tail’ by Chris Price, in the e-book Pacific Highways: Volume 2, available free at test.griffithreview.com