Awabi (アワビ)

Awabi (abalone) is a collective term referring to mollusks classified as Haliotidae. It is called "ormeau" in French. Some illustrated encyclopedia refer to awabi as Nordotis, not as Haliotis. It is almost impossible to discern male from female by appearance alone, and the gender is determined by examining the color of the sexual glands rather than the liver. Males have a green gland, and females have a whitish one.


Adult awabi have an almost elliptical shell with a diameter at the longest point of 5 to 20cm, and 3 to 17cm across. The shape differs greatly according to species, but all species of awabi have dish-shaped shells. In East Asia awabi are found in areas between the ebb tide line and shore reefs about 20m below the surface of the sea, they can be seen from southern Hokkaido to Kyushu in Japan, and along the Korean Peninsula and northern China, and live on Phaeophyceae such as Eisenia bicyclis, wakame seaweeds and kelp. Many species of awabi are active at night, and burrow between rocks or into the sand during daylight hours. They lay eggs at different times of the year according to the area; August and September in Hokkaido, and November and December in the Boso Peninsula.

Awabi have a line of several holes on the back surface of the shell. These holes are used to discharge excrement, eggs and sperm as well as water inhaled into the mantle in the process of branchial respiration, and the number of the holes is always within a certain range as the oldest hole becomes clogged up as a new hole is created during the growth of the shell. While awabi have four or five holes, tokobushi (Haliotis diversicolor aquatilis) have six to eight. In addition, while awabi have large-diameter holes with an elevated edge similar in appearance to the crater of Mt. Fuji, the holes on a tokobushi have no such elevated edge around them and are not so large.

In cooking

Fresh awabi

Awabi is an expensive ingredient characterized by a firm, almost crunchy texture. It is used in a variety of ways, being made into sashimi, mizugai (sliced sea-ear served in cold water), sake steamed sea-ear, steak and rice gruel. In some areas, awabi are grilled when freshly caught. In other areas, awabi liver is appreciated as a delicacy. The most expensive awabi of all is said to be kuroawabi, or disk abalone (Nordotis discus). Many chefs become famous for their kuroawabi steak, which is often presented as a Japanese-style western dish. One of the most unique dishes is 'awabi yam soup', which is salted awabi, grated and mixed with the same amount of grated yam (this is explained in detail in "Strange Food and Curious Food" written by Takeo Koizumi).

Concholepas concholepas (Muricidae) and the grand keyhole limpet (Diodora), native to South America, taste a little like awabi and are sometimes imported and processed as an alternative to them, but they are taxonomically quite different from awabi.

Dried abalone
Boiled and dried awabi is called ganbao in Chinese cuisine, and large pieces of ganbao are very expensive and much-prized. In Japan, shucked abalone were traditionally eaten in inland areas and the meat taken out from the shell was hung out to dry. Aomori and Iwate Prefectures are well-known for the production of high-grade dried abalone, and products from Oma-machi ('Oma Abalone') and those from Yoshihama, Ominato City ('Yoshihama Abalone') sell for a high price in Hong Kong. The larger a piece of ganbao is, the more expensive it is; one batch of ganbao of a little less than 600g is called "ten abalone" (one dried product weighs 60g). In addition to some Japanese products, dried abalone produced in the Republic of South Africa is regarded as relatively high-grade.

The meat of awabi salt-cured, stewed and dried is called 'mingbao' and used in Chinese cuisine. The manufacturing process of dried abalone is elaborate and requires extreme caution. The process consists of shell removal, salting, washing, shaping, stewing, roasting and drying, a second stewing and finally drying. Generally only fresh and undamaged Giant abalone (Haliotis madaka) are used. The shell is removed with the use of a shell knife carefully so as not to hurt the abalone, and the meat is salted. The purpose of this is to create a salty taste as well as to make the act of washing easier. The product is greatly influenced by the salt content; when too much salt is used the meat easily cracks during the stewing process and blisters are frequently produced on the surface. When too little salt is used black spots appear on the surface and the meat is too soft to shape. In the salting process, pieces of raw abalone from which the shell has been stripped are divided into three groups according to size, arranged in a 72 liter barrel, dusted with salt and left to absorb the salt. For large abalone about 3.6kg of salt is required for 37.5kg of meat, for middle-sized abalone about 3kg of salt, and about 2.7kg of salt for those of smaller size. You must ensure that salt covers the surface completely. At a low temperature, when it is difficult for the salt to be absorbed, the amount of salt used is somewhat increased, and at a high temperature the amount is decreased. The morning after salting, you pour fresh water into the tub, step into the tub wearing zori (Japanese sandals) and step firmly on all the meat in order to get rid of any dirt or pieces of shell which may be attached to the surface. After that, the meat is washed with water (the surface of each awabi should be rubbed and cleared of dirt) and put into an iron pot filled with boiling water. In this process, as the awabi gradually shrink and change in shape, they should be constantly reshaped and stewed, taking care that the meat does not burn on the bottom of the pot. After about ninety minutes, the lid of the pot is removed and the meat is further stewed for three to four hours, scooped up, dried in a dark place and cooled. The cooled meat is put into a hoiro (a kiln usually used for drying and kneading tea leaves) and dried. This process is called 'water removal,' during which the meat should be rotated well in order to be cooked evenly. The meat is removed from the heat after some time, allowed to cool, and is heated again if the meat is still soft the next day. Next, the meat is stewed again in order to make up for the short time of the first stewing and to fix the form. Again the abalone are put into a pot filled with boiling water, and when the water boils they are scooped out, arranged on seiro (baskets used for steaming food) and allowed to cool in the shade, in a place with good air circulation. When they are completely cool, they are put into the hoiro again, roasted for some time until they become too hot to touch, removed from the heat and allowed to cool. After five to seven sunny days of alternate sun-drying and roasting in the above-stated manner the roasting is stopped, the sun-drying continuing until after about a month the process is completed.


In Chinese medicine, the shells of Haliotis asinina, Haliotis diversicolor Reeve and Haliotis discus hannai (abalone) are called 'shijueming' (sea-ear shells) and have been used as a medicine. They are believed to have the effect of improving liver function and enhancing the health of the eye. They contain calcium carbonate, but are not treated as official drugs either in China or in Japan at the present time.

Other uses

The shells can be used as buttons for various garments. The under side of the shell is covered with very beautiful and shiny mother-of-pearl and extremely thin slices of this are used as material for craftwork such as raden (shell inlay) work.

In addition, the mother-of-pearl of the shell is sometimes used in the cultivation of pearls.

Fishing industry

Cultivation and release

Some young farm-raised shellfish are fed with Phaeophyceae, a type of brown algae, others are fed with Eisenia bicyclis, a type of seaweed, or are given an artificial diet. In most cases those fed on algae are released as a part of juvenile shellfish releasing activities, and it is impossible to tell from appearance alone whether an adult shellfish was born in the wild or artificially cultivated. Those fed on seaweed or fed an artificial diet develop blue or green shells, and this color remains even when the shellfish has reached maturity. That is why the color of the top of the shell is called the "Green Mark," used as a sign to discern whether the awabi is a natural product or a farm-raised one released into the wild.

Unloading Ports

As of 2002 (ranked according to size of catch)
1 - Shimotsui fishing port (Okayama Prefecture)
2 - Tomari (Ohara) fishing port (Miyagi Prefecture)
3 - Hagi fishing port (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
4 - Mugi fishing port (Tokushima Prefecture)
5 - Kitakami fishing port (Miyagi Prefecture)
Note: the catch varies according to the fiscal year. Also, this is the total number of shellfish, not just abalone. The rank of the catch of each prefecture differs from that of municipalities.


As the species living in Japan have been used since ancient times, they are known by different names according to the region.

Nordotis discus

Also known as ogai, originally meaning an offering to the Imperial Family or Ise Jingu Shrine.

Known in some areas as ongai (literally, male shellfish), stemming from the name ogai above, and used in contrast to mengai (literally, female shelfish).

Also known as seguro (literally meaning "black back"), because it has a black shell.

Also known as kurogai (literally meaning "black shellfish"), because it has a black shell.

Haliotis gigantea

Also known as mengai (literally meaning female shellfish), in contrast to ongai, as 'on' also means male. As it was produced in limited areas and on a small scale Haliotis gigantea was actually believed to be the female of Nordotis discus.

Also known as biwagai (literally meaning "medlar shellfish"), because its feet are ocher, the color of Japanese medlar (a fruit).

Haliotis madaka

Also known as metaka awabi (medaka awabi), because "madaka" and "metaka" mean the 'elevated eye' on the shell. The 'eye' refers to the spouting holes on the shell.

Also known as aogai (literally meaning "blue-green shellfish"), because it has green feet.

Haliotis discus hannai is a subspecies of Nordotis discus living in the north, however some researchers insist that it is the same species.

Haliotis diversicolor aquatilis

Also known as gokenjo (literally meaning 'widow woman'), because the flat shell resembles a bivalve shell but as it does not have a matching shell it can be compared to a widow who has lost her husband.

Haliotis asinina

Relationship with people

In Japan, from the fact that shells have been excavated from shell mounds, it can be seen that awabi were already being eaten in the Jomon and Yayoi Periods. It can be seen that nobles liked to eat awabi in the Heian Period from the fact that awabi is often referred to in mokkan (narrow strips of wood on which an official message is written).

Awabi in the "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)

In the "Manyoshu," Kii province is listed as an awabi production area along with other provinces called Miketsukuni (lands of royal provisions).

Abalone pearls are believed to have been used not only as jewelry but also as a Chinese herbal medicine. Smaller abalone were used as a Chinese herbal medicine until recently because the pearl layer of seashells has an antipyretic effect, but today they have been replaced by akoya pearls which are easier to acquire. Abalone pearls are believed to have been the only pearls produced in Japan before pearls started to be cultivated using modern methods.

A male diver from Ise dives into the sea every morning and evening because he is in one-sided love just like the awabi -- this is the song from which the idiom 'one-sided love of awabi (on the seashore)' is said to originate.

Awabi in Shinto ritual

Noshi abalone
Thin strips of dried abalone are distributed at the time of a celebration. They became popular after onshi (low-ranking Shinto priests) began to distribute them as lucky charms, in tribute to the noshi abalone produced in Kuzaki-cho, Toba City, Mie Prefecture which were used in Shinto rituals in Ise Jingu Shrine. Formally shinmotsu (gifts) were usually accompanied by noshi abalone, but as a result of gradual simplification, noshigami (wrapping paper for a present) with painted stylized noshi abalone have come to be used instead of the real thing.

In some shrines, awabi shells are used as hiraka (a white vessel with a diameter of about 10cm) instead of clay vessels.

Proverbs featuring awabi

One-sided love of awabi on the seashore
This proverb represents the situation in which one person always thinks of another, based on the assumption that awabi, unlike bivalves such as asari and corbicula clams, have no matching shell and always long for a partner.

Idioms and slang

Human female genitals are sometimes called 'awabi' because they are said to resemble awabi in form, or because they can have the smell of the ocean just like awabi.

Family names in China
The Han race has a family name 'Bao', represented by the kanji (Chinese character) which represents abalone. Bao Shuya, who wrote 'The Friendship Between Guan and Bao', is a famous individual with that family name.

[Original Japanese]