Cucumbers from the sea. 冬菇髮菜煮海參

OK, so they might not be the prettiest looking sea creatures around, even if you weren’t gonna eat them. But Cucumaria echinata, the common sea cucumber, are believed to have immense healing properties, and even aphrodisiac powers (just look at that … er, beautiful … shape). And according to Sinden’s group at ICL, who recently published their study in PLoS Pathogens, the sea cucumber produces a lectin that may even block malaria transmission. (And no, I didn’t just present a journal club on it ;-D.) The Chinese call sea cucumbers “海參“, which literally translates into “sea ginseng”. It is often sold in a dehydrated form. The Japanese take the intestines of sea cucumbers and ferment them into a delicacy known as konowata. Whether or not you believe in its nutritional benefits, it can’t possibly be bad for you, being mostly protein and virtually fat free. 

Now, whether you want to eat it is a different story. Sea cucumbers have a gelatinous, chewy, rubbery texture. It is not so much slimey as it is slippery. Whatever you call it – I guess it’s not the kind of mouthfeel for everyone. I happen to like gelatinous, slimey foods (thus my love for uni, jelly fish, tapioca pearls, okra… just to name a few). It’s a combination of personal taste and what you grew up with. I was never the kind of child who shunned foods, neither were my parents. Growing up at the Chinese dining table, I ate everything from pork intestines to chicken hearts to fish eyes to… maybe I’ll stop here. Anyway, a sea cucumber? Bwah! That’s nothing!

Sea cucumbers are usually braised in some tastey liquid for a period of time, because they contain little flavor in and of themselves. In Chinese cuisine it is often found in a soup. If you buy dehydrated sea cucumbers you will have to rehydrate them in water for a bit, and suppposedly that is not a simple task because it takes long and the sea cucumbers could actually disintegrate and taste weird if soaked too long. But you can find fresh, whole sea cucumbers at your local Asian supermarket, and they can prepare it and cut it up for you so you get just the “flesh”, like so:

Sea cucumbers

The darker and less “flimsy” they are, the better. This is how I was taught to prepare them: 

1. First brown some garlic cloves, fresh ginger slices, and green onions in a bit of oil.
2. Once those cook for a bit, add a bit of chicken broth and about 2T of oyster sauce or abalone sauce, and some shitake mushrooms. You could also add some shredded barbeque pork here, the flavor goes well with sea cucumbers, but this is not necessary.
3. If you have some, add a bit of pre-soaked 髮菜 fat choy” (AKA black moss) to the mix. (It was a Chinese New Year thing, so what precious little fat choy we was allowed!)
4. Wait for that to cook for a minute or two, and put in the whole sea cucumber (you can also first cut them into slices if you like). The sea cucumber should sit in the braising liquid but not be totally immersed in it.
5. Cook this at medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, then reduce to a low heat, so that the liquid is barely simmering. Cover, and let simmer another 20 minutes or so. (If your sea cucumber starts disintegrating before this, reduce the heat and cooking time.)
6. Top with some green onions, and serve with the braising liquid:

sea cucumber

媽媽的冬菇瑤柱節瓜 revisited: Fuzzy Melon STEAK?!

Should you happen to come across fuzzy melon that is short and small, you can cook them whole. Your grandfather loved to stuff them with shredded fresh crab meat.“-Mom

This is usually how my mother makes my favorite fuzzy melon with shitake and conpoy. Typically the melons are large and long, like a very fat, long cucumber, so you cut them up into little rounds before braising them. But you can eat them like a melon steak, if you can find some little ones that are short and small – shorter than a typical zucchini. (According to Mother, even if you had a giant pot that is large enough, you cannot do this with the big melons, it will not absorb the flavors.)

They look rather funny whole like that, do they not? I have never eaten them this way, but they turned out great – kind of “meaty” for a vegetable, and retained all the juices inside. Definitely delish, and a whole new eating experience with one of my favorite classic dishes from home.

Fuzzy Melon

Seafood hot pot.

Shrimp mushroom tofu hotpot

Mom’s seafood hot pot of jumbo shrimp, enoki mushrooms, napa cabbage, lettuce, in a miso broth. And hidden underneath was soft tofu and Kamaboko (Japanese steamed fish cake). Yum. Was stuffed by the end of this and having several cups of that miso broth, so nice and warm and perfect for a cold day.

This was the kamaboko, which was cut into little half moon slabs. I’m particularly fascinated with the little piece of wood that these cakes are packaged with. It’s purely for your chopping convenience, and then it gets chucked, but I kinda think it’s neat.


媽媽的冬菇瑤柱節瓜 Mom’s Fuzzy Melon with Shitake and Conpoy

My mother makes this great fuzzy melon (also called tseet gwa 節瓜, or Mo gwa 毛瓜) dish. It is a delicious medley of thick fuzzy melon slices, shredded conpoy (dried scallops 瑤柱), and shitake mushrooms, braised in a bit of thick broth. Since I was little, this has been one of my ultimate favorite Mom-dishes of all time. Fuzzy melon looks and tastes like a fat, hairy cucumber, but is sweeter and softer. Every time Mom makes this the kitchen smells wonderful, and I can eat the entire thing if it wasn’t for the fact that I have to share. I should know how to make this, because I keep asking and she keeps telling me, but I also keep forgetting. I know each ingredient has to be prepared a certain way. This is one recipe I would want to reproduce exactly and not freestyle, so I need to learn her little tricks. Investigation required.

Mom’s fuzzy melon

媽媽的冬菇瑤柱節瓜 (Mom’s Fuzzy Melon with Shitake and Conpoy)