It's big in Asia. In fact, about 70% of all Pearl meat currently leaves Australian shores, destined for high end restaurants in Singapore, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong. There it is quick blanched, chopped and stir-fried into delicate, elegant dishes.
The remaining 30% makes its way to fine dining establishments on Australia's east coast and to a handful of restaurants here in Perth and in Broome. Chefs who can get their hands on it and whose food cost budget allows (Pearl meat fetches over $100/kilogram) jump at the chance to work with such a prized ingredient. It is hard to get, which is why we don't see it appearing on ice at the local fish monger.
Pearl meat comes from the largest oyster in the world, the Pinctada Maxima. Pearls from the silver-lipped pearl oyster, found in the coastal waters off Broome in the Kimberley, are highly sought after. In fact, the pearling 'industry' first started with settlers in the Pilbara region in the 1860s eventually moving to the shell laden waters of Broome. To learn more about the history of the pearling industry in the Kimberley check out the following website.
Most importantly, long before the pearling industry, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people used pearl and shells for ceremonial purposes and the meat as a food source for centuries.
With recent approval by the State government for the construction of a multi species hatchery at the opposite end of Western Australia in Frenchman Bay, Albany, it seems the amount of pearl meat that may soon be available to West Australians will increase. Not only will this aid the economy and create jobs, it will boost export market potential and allow the meat to appear on more menus throughout the state. How exciting!
Generally pearl meat is lightly tenderised before cooking. But, texturally it is not as chewy as Abalone (unless you overcook it) nor is it as soft as say, scallops. It has a minerally, fresh-from-the-sea taste to it which can take on light subtle flavours whilst still holding its own.
The best way to cook it? Don't overcook it first of all. Unless it is being braised, thinly sliced pearl meat can be quickly seared in the pan for no more than 10 seconds each side. We like to serve it raw on RiverMint menus seasoned with native flavours including finger lime, bloodroot, native lemongrass and a touch of Geraldton Wax oil. It also works beautifully just flash fried with sugar snaps, mirin, Tamari and ginger. Or try braising sliced pearl meat slowly for 2 hours in a basil tomato sauce.
If you would like to get your hands on some pearl meat, have a look at respected pearl farmers such as Clipper Pearls or Great Southern Shellfish. Otherwise, if you are in Broome why not check out the awesome Willie Creek Pearl Meat Cook-off, held annually as part of the Shinju Masturi Festival in September each year. This year's winners from Matso's Brewery, served the pearl meat ceviche style marinated in lime and tequila and topped with champagne poached apple and spiced potato crisp. Delish!!