It’s hard to imagine a time when paua wasn’t considered a beloved New Zealand delicacy. However, post World War II, before the decadent meat’s rise in popularity domestically and as an export commodity, it was only harvested for its iridescent interior shell. The meat was considered a by-product and thrown away.
Today, paua is caught with a more considered approach, and the whole of the ancient mollusc is used for food and design.
How does paua get its colour?
While paua sits within the abalone family, which is found in other parts of the world, namely, South America, Australia, Western North America, and Japan, paua’s hidden, multi-coloured interior shell is only found in New Zealand.
The intricate layers of blues, greens, pinks, and mauves found in paua result from its unique diet; these deep-sea jewels feast on brown and red algae and bladder kelp, contributing to its uniquely colourful shell.
There are regional variations in paua shell in both colour and thickness, and the depth and composition of colours depend on diet and environmental factors.
Chatham Island paua tends to have more incandescent blues than in other parts of New Zealand, and the shell is thinner as they grow faster. In colder waters such as Kaikoura, Fiordland, and Stewart Island paua grow more slowly, making the shell thicker.
The legend of Tangaroa and paua
Paua is considered taonga and treasured for its meat and luminous shell, which is used across traditional and modern Māori art. The shell is frequently used for the eyes of Māori carvings and is traditionally associated with the stars or whetū, the symbolic eyes of ancestors that gaze down from the night sky.
According to Māori legend Tangaroa, God of the Sea, Son of Ranginui (the sky father) and Papatūānuku (the earth mother) noticed that paua was sad and lonely and that the other sea creatures mocked his slowness and unattractiveness. Tangaroa takes pity on him and gives paua a dazzling shell of freshest forest greens from his brother Tane. However, the sea creatures are jealous of his beautiful shell, smashing it to pieces, and the paua remains miserable. Tangaroa decides to strengthen his shell with the ocean’s colours and hides its beauty where only he can see it. Tangaroa then charged paua with the life-long task of adding layer upon delicate layer to keep the shell protected, each layer a different hue than the previous.
Paua as Kiwiana
Paua shell is used decoratively from jewellery and buttons to commercial fit-outs and feature inlays and plays a huge part in New Zealand’s Kiwiana history.
Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s Paua Shell House’ at the bottom of the South Island is such a symbol of New Zealanders’ connection to paua that it now lives on in the Christchurch Museum.
For fifty years, the Flutey’s collected more than 1000 paua shells that adorned their house alongside other pieces of Kiwiana. Over one million visitors passed through the house, with Fred and Myrtle happy to share their stories and passion for paua with visitors.
Chatham Island paua
The pristine waters and unique marine ecosystem in the Chatham Islands help create prime living conditions for paua. The deep-sea creatures thrive in our nutrient-dense waters and are often larger than divers’ hands when caught. The diver keeps the shell as part of their catch, landing it to artisans New Zealand wide.
Our snap-frozen whole paua is delivered in its shell from the ocean to your door, your treasure to keep from the edge of the world.