Bao yu is the term used in China to describe abalone, a type of sea snail that lives in a shell and is prized as food. Abalone can be eaten raw, dried, canned or smoked. It can be cooked in soups, mixed with rice or stir-fried. In China, abalone is often served during large festivals, weddings and other events. There is a very muscular foot attached to the body of the abalone that is usually removed and dried to be eaten later as a delicacy.
Abalone lives at the bottom of coastal waters in areas where it can find protection in the rocks. It grows slowly, taking anywhere from six to eight years to reach full maturity. For this reason, a number of countries have passed laws prohibiting the mass harvesting of these mollusks. Although not as rare as some other marine creatures, bao yu is rare enough to command a high price in Asia.
The rarity of bao yu historically restricted its consumption to an experience for royalty. Improved fishing techniques and trade increased the supplies of abalone so a wider audience could enjoy it. The later development of the canning process finally brought bao yu within reach of most of the population.
During celebrations and festivals, bao yu is almost always on the menu. It can be given as a gift or sent to relatives overseas. It is an expected part of the festivities and is included in most celebratory banquets.
The way bao yu is prepared in China is different from how it is prepared in some other Asian countries. The canned variety of the mollusk is what is most often used in Chinese cuisine. The fresh or live variety is rarely seen and the innards are almost never used.
In Cantonese cuisine, bao yu can be treated several ways. A classic dish is a simple soup of dried abalone with asparagus. Using dried abalone in soups is traditional because it takes several hours of boiling to make the flesh soft again. If not used in a soup, the dried abalone needs to be soaked for several days to be edible.
Frying bao yu also is a typical preparation. Usually done with the canned variety, the frying process needs to be timed carefully. Abalone needs to be fried for a minute or less. Cooking it too long makes it tough, and not cooking it long enough could result in an odd texture and fishy taste, especially when using the canned variety.