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Why is abalone so popular in China? The story behind this mollusc's stardom

autoreBy Steve Williamson 28 Sep 2016

Richard Nixon

In 1972, the President of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, visited China looking to explore political and economic growth between the two countries. He was welcomed warmly as a supreme guest of the Chinese Government, and was served food luxuries deemed to be the best that China could possibly offer. He was given abalone. For the Chinese, it’s a whole lot more than just a tasty gastropod mollusc in the Haliotidae family…

Darn fine ingot

Other than being unbelievably delicious, abalone’s initial popularity in China was earned through its resemblance to the ‘sycee’, a gold or silver ingot form of currency used by the Chinese until the late 20th Century. The sycee, whose name means ‘fine silk’, bestowed the abalone its reputation of high esteem among consumers, chefs and restaurateurs alike with the abalone being highly sought after for its associated image of wealth, prosperity and fortune.

100 bones

But does that same reputation carry through into the modern world? China’s a country steeped in tradition, so the answer is of course yes. Abalone is still one of the most expensive shellfish available on the other side of the Great Wall, with consumers willing to spend upward of US $100 for a single abalone meal.

Down under

Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada are among some of China's (and the world's) highest value abalone suppliers, with the Australian Abalone Fishery supplying more than 50% of the world’s wild caught abalone annually - a significant portion of which goes to China. In fact, recent figures showed that Australia’s abalone export value to China was around US $30 million per year. But with the China Australia Free Trade Agreement cutting tariffs on Chinese seafood exports, demand increasing, and ease of trade through online options, this number could easily go as high as US $600 million.

Staying wild

Despite the fact that wild abalone imports into China compete with local Chinese farmed varieties (which sell at a third of the price), there is a general trend of upward growth for premium wild products as Chinese buyers are very aware of the quality that comes with abalone being wild caught or farmed in clean, pristine locations outside China. With a growing middle-class population of around 1.53 billion, laden with expendable income, looking to spend big on luxury foods, China’s seafood buyers opt for this quality and brand recognition ahead of affordability when it comes to abalone. 

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Gfresh team