What is Pāua and What Should I Do With It?

July 13

What is Pāua and What Should I Do With It?

Walk into any New Zealand souvenir or jewellery store and you’ll be met with the glow of torquoise sea shells with an unmistakable iridescent sheen. This is pāua, or more specifically, the large shell which protects pāua, which, according to the dictionary, is a marine gastropod living exclusively in New Zealand waters. These days, the word has joined the ranks of merino, milk and pineapple lumps as ‘iconic Kiwiana’, and been used for everything from jewellery to ashtrays and wallpaper – enter the age of paua kitsch. But as overused as the brand may be in the international tourist shopping market, this sea creature and its sturdy shell hold cultural significance for Māori people, the tender dark meat tastes as good as ever.


What is pāua?

Like we said, pāua is marine gastropod, and a species of the genus Haliotis . They’re big, turquoise sea snails which cling to underwater rocks with their one large foot, and live only in New Zealand waters. They live in the shallow rocky waters of New Zealand’s coastlines, but are most common in the cold waters around Stewart Island and Southland.

Paua have separate sexes, and mature paua usually spawn in the spring and autumn, when the temperatures are colder. They have eyes, a mouth and tentacles and breath through gills.

Is paua only found in NZ?

There are many different species which belong to the Haliotus genus in the Haliotidae family, which is collectively known as Abalone (though this can be referring specifically to American varieties, too), ormer in the United Kingdom and perlemoen in South Africa. The black-footed paua, Haliotis iris, with its bright turquoise shell, is unique to Aotearoa. Like most abalone, paua produce pearls. These pearls (also known as blue pearls) can be grown in the wild, or, as is becoming more common, in paua cultivating farms across the country.

Where in NZ is paua most common?

The best place to find Paua in New Zealand is where the water is coldest – so the further south, the bigger and more abundant they will be. They’re found usually in rocky subtidal areas, as they only live in shallow water. Their shells are pretty hard to miss, and if you’re out freediving for paua, search for rough, oval shells with white outer colouring. The shells of the black-footed paua can get up to 180mm in size.

What is the cultural significance of Paua?

Paua are significant for Māori people, as may be apparent based on the fact that there is no English name. Paua is thought to bring connectivity and harmony to relationships, and are also a symbol of change and transition, based on the way the shell reflects light. The name paua (a word from the Moari language, Te Reo) actually refers to three different indigenous species – the black foot, as well as the smaller yellow foot and white foot.

They are commonly used as eyes in Māori artwork, as well as being given as gifts, and the shell is thought to bring prosperity and peace to the wearer. As well as the edible flesh being used for hundreds of years to feed the family and to make strong body and the heart, the shells were traditionally used to treat a number of health conditions, from deficiency of calcium to nervous system disorders.

Is paua the same as abalone?

Nope, abolone (generally) refers collectively to all the species under the Haliotis genus, whilst paua refers specifically to Haliotis iris. Of course, they are closely related to each other and to other species, such as the ormer, located in the United Kingdom.

Is paua shell rare?

Across the world, human overconsumption has seen abalone numbers fall drastically, and Aotearoa is no exception. With its rich edible flesh and highly sought-after shell, the shellfish is under threat, and is now under legal protection to save their populations. It’s illegal to sell paua without a license, and recreational gathering is managed by strict quotas (ten of each species per fisher per day) as well as size limits based on the species.

What is paua worth?

Domestically, paua meat fetches around $20 a kg, but it’s illegal to sell without a license, and most people pay with effort rather than money, and hunting for their own paua. On the export market, though, paua meat has become highly sought after in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, fetching $500-$1,000 a kilogram in its dried form.

How do you find paua?

Paua is found in shallow water clinging to rocks, so to find them, head out on the low tide and go free diving. They can be stuck pretty hard onto the rocks, so most people use blunt objects to detach them (the use of sharp objects is illegal to protect the remaining paua and other marine life). A bit of experience is required to reach the results you’re after (i.e to get enough paua for dinner), and the smartest thing to do is to go along for your first day with someone who knows what they’re doing, see how it’s done and learn the tricks of the trade – then you’ll be set to go on your own.

What’s the best way to eat paua?

Paua can be eaten raw (aka New Zealand sashimi), barbecued, made into a chowder or into the national favourite, paua fritters. For many years before English settlers arrived, Maori would cook the flesh on heated rocks.

Where do I find the best paua fritters?

Now that’s a secret too good to give away. Any decent market or festival should have paua fritters served on fresh white bread, and the recipe doesn’t change much – you may want to learn it and keep this one up your sleeve.

What else is paua used for?

The shell is used for jewellery and souvenirs. Maori have used it for years to make art, and it is often worn as a taonga (a present or treasure).

Can you buy paua jewellery?

Yep, and you’d be hard pressed to encounter a jewellery shop without paua in New Zealand.

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