If you travel to SBS Sino-Canada Products Inc. at the Pacific Mall in Markham, you will notice behind the register tall jars containing round, prune-like objects. They are dried abalones. Look a little closer and you will notice the price: $750 a pound. By tomorrow, there may not be any left.
Chinese Torontonians who shell out for these rarefied sea snails have not lost their minds. Tomorrow, they and roughly a billion other Chinese people all over the planet will be welcoming in the Year of the Tiger, making this weekend arguably the world's most important holiday of the year.
And now the good news: The Chinese celebrate by eating. The party kicks off tonight with a meal intended to be the culinary highlight of the year. And in many households, that meal will include dried abalone.
Since Wednesday, dried abalones in kitchens all over the city have been boiling and cooling. This morning, chicken, ham, chicken feet, pork spare ribs, ginger, green onion and dried sea scallops were added to the pot, which was then braised for six hours. Maybe even as you're reading this, the meat, which has been cooked to mush, is being thrown out. But it's all for a higher purpose: the sauce.
So it was with an empty but open stomach that I travelled to the corner of Steeles and Kennedy, home to the largest Asian mall on this continent. I may be a garden-variety round-eye - I may have celebrated New Year's more than a month ago with a hangover followed by an overpriced brunch - but that doesn't mean I can't eat like I'm from deepest Guangzhou.
To aid my quest, I was accompanied by a man who may know more about Chinese food than anyone else in this city: Patrick Lin. He is the executive chef at the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel's Senses restaurant, and he is from Hong Kong, where he grew up and learned to cook. He is, furthermore, no stranger to the woks at Senses' two sister restaurants, the eminently Chinese Lai Wah Heen and Lai Toh Heen.
Regarding those dried abalones, Mr. Lin had this to say: The $750 ones are only middle of the road. On the next shelf down, he pointed out a jar of superior Japanese dried abalones. Lin described the sensation of eating one of them as "something you can't get out of your head," placing the experience in the same exalted culinary heights as "a fresh white truffle shaved over fresh egg pasta tossed with butter." A bargain, you might say, at $1,250 a pound.
If there's a Chinese New Year's ingredient worth shelling out for, however, then abalone is it. On a Chinese New Year's menu, each dish is highly symbolic. Abalone's role is prestige. It is grandiose and special, the Chinese equivalent of popping the cork on a Bordeaux you paid $350 for back in 1982.
Mere feet from the abalone, we spotted festive candies, which are similarly rich in meaning but less so in price. Candied lotus roots, Mr. Lin told me, betoken a good relationship between a husband and wife. Candied lotus seeds, on the other hand, carry wishes for a newborn baby.
Given that my wife and I presently have our hands full with two babies - twins - not to mention a three-year-old, the lotus seeds didn't seem like such a good idea.
But across the parking lot, at the bluntly-named Snack Stop, Mr. Lin introduced me to the New Year's treat known as the deep-fried peanut dumpling: crunchy and oddly reminiscent of halva. More to the point, these cookie-like treats are said to bring a change in personal fortune.
Certain key themes repeat themselves: fertility, happiness, longevity, and wealth. But they play out in different ways. Red dishes, for example, are prized because red brings happiness. The name for prawns in Cantonese is "ha," and so prawns symbolize laughter. Dried oysters, on the other had, are called "ho seze," a homonym for "good business." That makes them pretty much obligatory.
Almost every restaurant at the Pacific Mall has a grand New Year's menu planned - sea cucumber, sticky rice, roasted crispy chicken, Peking duck - but for lunch, Mr. Lin and I headed to Lai Toh Heen. (Which, curiously, is located a few doors south of the Chick'n'Deli and in the heart of Davisville Village, which may be this city's most un-Chinese neighbourhood.) We started with the dried oysters, which were not nearly as fishy as I expected. (Though fishy is just fine with me if it means getting rich.) This was followed by braised pork hock, and then a dish meant to bring both happiness and laughter: jumbo prawn in a sweet tomato sauce. They accomplished their goal in the first bite, thanks to the prawn's superb freshness and the sauce's sweet-yet-tangy flavour.
At last, the moment of the abalone was nigh. Hours earlier, the scallop-ham-chicken-pork stock had been reduced to a nectar-like consistency, whereupon Lai Toh Heen's chef John Kwan kissed it with oyster sauce. In the mouth, it was just as Patrick Lin promised: tender and juicy. There was a hint of brine, but its most singular trait, surprisingly, was meatiness. I chewed it slowly and thoughtfully, tasting the silky sauce, then the rich abalone flesh. It wasn't much larger than a toonie, but it possessed the richness of an oyster and the heft of a steak.
Afterward, I patted my napkin to my lips and considered the peculiar dried sea snail I had just eaten - dried in Japan, shipped to Toronto, where it was cooked by a Chinese chef and served to a person of Jewish/Ukrainian/Finnish heritage. With a retail value of about $90, it was the most expensive piece of seafood I had ever consumed - even more than the Carrera-white tuna belly I once ate in Tokyo - and among the more delicious.
That, I thought, is a fine way to begin the Year of the Tiger. No matter what happens next - a collapsed roof, getting audited, more twins - I will always remember that dish. At $1,250 per pound, worth every penny.
Special to The Globe and Mail