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:
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: