In Cantonese cuisine, one of the most luxurious and expensive ingredients is dried abalone. It takes time and patience to prepare, and is usually reserved for banquets and other celebratory meals. As much as I love it, I’ve never cooked it – I leave that to the experts. But I do cook a fair amount of fresh abalone, which is readily available at reasonable prices from seafood vendors.
If you can’t find fresh abalone, buy frozen – taken out of the shell and cleaned – usually from South Africa or Australia. Frozen abalone is usually much larger than the fresh ones in Chinese seafood markets, so you will need just two or three for this recipe.
As with most good Cantonese dishes, this one is very pure – it’s seasoned with salt and a little oyster sauce. It’s easy to prepare and cook; the hardest part is slicing the abalone horizontally into thin pieces, for which you will need a very sharp knife.
Removing the husk of the fresh bamboo shoot is much harder to describe than to do. Please don’t use canned bamboo shoot for this (or any) dish – it has an odd flavour, and the texture isn’t nearly as good as the fresh vegetable. You can sometimes find frozen bamboo shoots in supermarkets.
If using fresh abalone, use a sharp paring knife to cut the muscle attached to the shell. With both fresh and frozen abalone, use a clean toothbrush to scrub the entire surface under cool running water. Squeeze the fresh abalone to remove the liver, then rinse. Lay a paper towel on a cutting board, and place one abalone on top (the towel will prevent it sliding around; replace when necessary).
Put the palm of your hand flat on the abalone to hold it firmly, and use a sharp knife to slice it horizontally into thin pieces. For small abalone, you should be able to get four or five pieces out of each one; with larger ones you should be able to get at least six slices. After each slice, remove the piece and put it on a plate. Be sure to hold your hand flat so it stays out of the way of the blade.
Lay the bamboo shoot on the cutting board and use a sturdy, very sharp knife to slit the husk from stem to tip. With the stem end closest to you, place the back edge of the blade about one-quarter of the way up the bamboo shoot. Keep the knife edge so it is firmly holding the first few layers of the husk, and with the bamboo shoot flat on the cutting board, roll it to your left, away from the blade (if you’re right-handed). This should peel away the layers of husk. If all the layers of husk have not been removed from the tip and stem end of the shoot, repeat the process until all that’s left is clean, smooth, edible flesh.
Trim off the stem end of the bamboo shoot so it can stand upright on the cutting board. Cut the shoot lengthways into slices about 3mm (⅛in) thick, then cut these into batons about 4cm (1½in) long.
Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to the boil, add the bamboo pieces and simmer for five minutes, then drain in a colander. (Simmering isn’t necessary with frozen bamboo shoots.)
Cut or tear the Chinese celery stalks into 5cm (2in) lengths (tearing gives it more flavour). Halve the onion then slice it. Slice the banana chilli on the diagonal into 5mm ( ¼ in) pieces. Cut the spring onions into 5cm (2in) lengths. Put the oyster sauce in a small bowl, add 30ml (2 tbsp) of hot water and stir to dissolve.
Heat a wok or large skillet over a medium flame. Add the pine nuts and stir constantly for a minute, or until lightly toasted. Put the pine nuts into a dish and set aside while cooking the other ingredients.
Place the wok or skillet (no need to wash it) over a high flame. Add the cooking oil and swirl the wok or skillet so it’s evenly coated. When the wok is very hot, add the abalone slices, sprinkle lightly with salt and stir constantly for about 20 seconds. Remove the abalone pieces from the skillet, leaving behind as much oil as possible.
Place the wok (no need to wash it) back over a high flame. Add the bamboo shoots, Chinese celery and onion, sprinkle lightly with salt and cook for about two minutes, stirring often. Add the chilli and spring onion and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring often.
Put the abalone pieces back into the wok, then stir in the oyster sauce and water. Scrape the ingredients into the centre of the wok and simmer over a high flame for about a minute, stirring occasionally. Add the pine nuts, stir briefly, then turn off the flame.
Transfer the ingredients to a serving dish and garnish with a few Chinese celery leaves. Serve immediately with steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables.