Pearl meat is the adductor muscle of the pearl oyster and is a by-product of the pearl and pearl shell industries. It was traditionally eaten by Indigenous people and, of necessity, by the crews of pearling luggers. The dried meat was being exported from Thursday Island to Asia as early as 1934.
The pearling industry began in Western Australia in the 1860s and in the Torres Strait Islands of far north Queensland in the 1870s. Initially, it was the pearl shell that was most in-demand, with 80 per cent of the mother-of-pearl used to make buttons. Demand for the shell evaporated in the mid-20th century when buttons began to be made from newly developed plastics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had long traded in pearl shell and used the shell in ceremonies and the meat was part of traditional diets.
Dried seafood, including abalone and bêche de mer (sea cucumber), had long been considered a delicacy in Asia, so it’s no surprise that pearl meat was first exported in dried form. Shipping lists from 1934 record sailings from Thursday Island with cargoes of bêche de mer, pearl shell and “shell meat”. The trade to Hong Kong and Japan continued until 1941 when Japan entered World War II. After a hiatus, it revived in 1949. when the freight superintendent for Australian National Airways identified a market for the Thursday Island product in Hong Kong.
Today, both fresh and dried meat are produced by pearl farming companies, mainly from the Kimberley region in Western Australia. The meat – a translucent thumb-sized morsel – is harvested from oysters that have not produced a pearl of sufficient quality and therefore will not be re-seeded. It is generally flash frozen on board the harvest vessel. Around 80 per cent of the meat is exported, bringing around AU$100 per kilo for fresh meat and $400 for dried.
Pearl meat is served as a specialty local product in many Broome, WA, restaurants and is increasingly available through specialty food wholesalers in other states. Cooking modes vary. It can be served raw, flash-fried or braised and is often combined with other native Australian ingredients such as finger lime. Each September, in Broome, the Willie Creek Pearl Meat Cook-off is held as part of the town’s Shinju Masturi Festival.