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WA's abalone reminds migrants of home

Thursday, 22 November 2018

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For four days every summer Perth’s beaches are teeming with Asian immigrants eager to catch their share of abalone, but what’s really behind the fascination?

ECU researcher Dr Li Chen from the School of Arts and Humanities has investigated the interaction between Chinese immigrants and the Western Australian environment through the practice of abalone harvesting.

“WA’s abalone, a treasure of nature, is a bridge joining Chinese people’s memories of their motherland and the nature of Australia,” Dr Chen said.

In mainland China abalone is associated with power and wealth, but Dr Chen said Chinese immigrants to Perth relate abalone harvesting to health, entertainment, sentimentality, and the sensory dimensions of their new life.

“Early immigrants return to the memories of their hometown via the flavour of the delicacy, while the younger newcomers may have their first taste with a sense of enjoyment with their new life and place,” Dr Chen said.

A symbol of privilege

Dr Chen said harvesting free, wild-caught Australian abalone is a signifier to Chinese people of a heathy, positive lifestyle.

“Abalone has always been a very expensive food ingredient in China and wild stock is rare, so Chinese people believe if I can catch free wild abalone I’m leading a privileged and desirable life,” Dr Chen said.

“After every abalone harvest most young people post photos on social media of fishing, coastal scenery and even the process of cooking to their friends and relatives in China.”

Restaurant dishes and home cooking

In China people relish abalone not only for its rareness but also for the chef’s culinary skills.

“In Chinese restaurants abalone sauce is usually made with chicken, duck, dried sea scallops and ham and is a personal secret recipe,” Dr Chen said.

Dr Chen said traditional Chinese abalone recipes are often complex and demand a very high price.

“Yang Guangyi, the founder of Ayi Abalone in Hong Kong has been recognised with the highest medal of honour from the International Chef Association with the average price for one piece of Ayi abalone costing around $6,500 Australian dollars,” she said.

However, Dr Chen said many people from inland areas of China have only ever eaten abalone prepared in restaurants so are unsure of how to cook it at home.

“Many immigrants to Perth are taking their lead from the locals, trying out simple recipes such as BBQ or sashimi,” Dr Chen said.

During the last decade WA’s abalone fishing regulations have been regularly overhauled due to depleting local stocks.

In 2017 the annual fishing season was reduced to four days.

However, Dr Chen believes the restrictions are gathering support from Chinese community.

“Chinese people are becoming aware of the importance of environmental protection and the need to treasure and conserve our natural resources,” Dr Chen said.

Dr Chen’s research paper Abalone in Diasporic Chinese Culture: The Transformation of Biocultural Traditions through Engagement with the Western Australian Environment is published in Heritage journal.

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