Dried scallops, also known as conpoy, are expensive and have always been a delicacy. However, they are never out of reach. I can buy as little as a quarter pound which will last quite a while. The cost is not really making a big enough dent in my wallet so I never bothered to care about the quality I have been buying. I knew that as long as they are from Japan and do not smell funny, I can only screw up so much. I focused more on my haggling skills instead.
Recently I went to gather ingredients for XO sauce and I was astonished by the cost because I had to get a pretty good amount. At $160 a pound, maybe it’s time that I learn a thing or two about it. Ouch.
When I was writing the steps for my XO sauce, I thought I could just sneak in a few lines of shopping tips in the same post. It became apparent that it merits its own. The following write up came from a few online sources written in Chinese. Most of it is simply direct translation but I also added a little bit of my own interpretation. I think this is a good start. I am also learning and being a complete novice as well.
Why are they so expensive?
Well, fresh scallops are not exactly cheap either. Where I live, U10 scallops are usually sold at US$30 a pound. The smaller ones are usually sold for US$20-25. If scallops’ water content is supposed to be around 75%, the dried ones are then 3-4 times as expensive per pound.
The most sought after dried scallops are from Hokkaido, Japan. The cold ocean with melt-offs from the arctic circle creates a wonderful environment for the scallops. There is also a lot of manual labor involved to handle the delicate meat. The Japanese has the most stringent quality control and the most advanced dehydration process. They go through a certification and grading process by the local seafood association.
Due to climate change, there is a decline in volume and size in the harvest from Japan in recent years. Nevertheless, they are still producing the best dried scallops on the market today.
One of these days I would like to make my own using our wonderful local Maine sea scallops.
How are they made?
I am still trying to look for a definitive answer… or I may just get my hands dirty and experiment. The Japanese are keeping it as a trade secret. There are two things for sure: They are cooked in brine, are dehydrated (duh!), and probably cured (damn, I need to learn Japanese to fully understand the videos).
From my limited understanding of Japanese and by no means accurate, the process starts in May/June and the scallops go through dehydration and curing through October.
They are graded according to the size and quality.
It is believed that the bigger the scallop, the more nutrients and minerals it contains, hence more flavorful. However, size is not everything. Notsuke Peninsula in Hokkaido and Russia side of the Okhotsk Sea are known for their big scallops. But the minerals and micro-organisms content in those waters are different. The scallops end up having a less desired flavor profile. The big ones (LL and above) are probably old and tough when they were fresh to begin with and not a great choice for consumption. However, they’re still very expensive due to rarity and simply good looking.
There are 8 different sizes:
- GL – from the top 1% of the scallops.
- LL – 30-38 pieces/lb.
- L – 38 – 54 pieces/lb.
- M – 54 – 69 pieces/lb.
- S – 69 – 92 pieces/lb.
- SA – 92 – 144 pieces/lb.
- SAS – around 150+ pieces/lb.
The Japanese uses metric system. The US uses the imperial system. The Asians have their own system. The above figures are converted from the Chinese system to provide a rough idea. If you bought a pound of size-M and got 80 pieces, you know you are being duped.
1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds
1 Chinese catty = 1.3 pounds
You may also find broken scallops for sale. They are usually cheaper than their whole counterparts, but not necessarily inferior in quality. Some of them are broken simply during transportation and handling. However, scallops can also disintegrate during the dehydration process if the muscle has weak protein bonding, probably due to poor nutrition in the waters where they lived in.
Here’s the sizing guide of broken scallops:
- B1 – shards from size L
- B2 – shards from size M
- B3 – shards from size S
Those that are broken into 2-3 pieces from one scallop are actually a very good buy when presentation is not important. However, those that are broken into 5-6 shards or above would be an indication of lower nutritional content (read flavor).
Which brings us into the actual quality grade of the scallops. There are three grades, 1, 2, and 3, where 1 being the best. The dried scallops should have as little cracks as possible (strong protein bonding), have a slight sheen, and not tacky to touch. They should also smell umami-y and like the ocean. They should be tall / thick relative to the diameter.
However, my grandmother did not rely on these gradings when she shopped, nor the gradings are always present and available to customers. You just have to expose yourself and get a sense of the different varieties available. How else do you learn about wine?
Which one to buy?
Price is a good indication of the quality. Which one to buy really depends on your budget. You should always choose quality over size. As a general rule, if you need to present the scallops whole, size L or even M would be a good choice. If you are shredding them or just using them for umami, size S, SA, Bs, or even 4S should be sufficient.
When I enter the store, I tell the rep that they are for my own use instead of being gifted to someone else. He should then pull out the best stock with the most reasonable price available. The idea is that while the good ones can be double or even triple as costly, they may not be double as tasty. Decide if you want to go cheaper or higher from there. A good store should have multiple varieties for different customers. You are not obligated to make a purchase if you cannot find anything agreeable. Make a mental note and go into multiple stores to compare.
Come to think of it, it is somewhat like shopping for a diamond.
They can be stored sealed in the fridge for up to 2 years and in the freezer for many years. If fridge space is limited, place them in a sealed glass container away from moisture and sunlight for up to 6 months.
Sometimes there is a layer of white powder on the dried scallops, which is usually just salt and not mold. It can be caused by over-salting during dehydration or the scallops have been stored for an extended period of time and have dehydrated further.
Where to buy?
The Cantonese is said to be the largest consumer of Hokkaido dried scallops. The cream of the crop stock are mostly sold to them. You may have better luck finding high quality dried scallops in Hong Kong than in Hokkaido. Well, I do not live in Hong Kong and I have no plans to visit any time soon, so the local Chinatown is my source. Since dried scallops are expensive, they are usually placed at manned stations or behind counters proudly displayed in clear containers and away from stray hands. By now you should have become an informed customer, so don’t be intimated. The salesman should open up the containers and let you smell and touch them. If he refuses, walk away.
I have also recently discovered that I can buy them directly from Japan or good old Amazon in the comfort of my own home if I am not in a rush. The package took 10 days to arrive and I looked forward to it. The bag of 500g size SA including shipping was around US$100. When I opened the package I was honestly a little disappointed because they were smaller than I expected, even though they smelled really fresh. You can see the US dime on the bag as a comparison. I weighed out 1 pound of scallops and counted 136 of them – definitely well within range but towards the lower end of the scale. I can do a lot better in my local Chinatown. Nevertheless, it is still a decent option for those who do not have easy access to Chinatown.
Are you going to run into dishonest stores? Maybe. Some are said to mix lower quality scallops into good stock and you can never tell. The only fool-proof way is by experience, look around, and compare. Another motto to go by is “cheap products are not always bad, but good products are rarely cheap”. There is a chance you may not be getting the best quality for the money, but they are still dried scallops and tasty regardless.