Saturday, October 01, 2011


One of my acquaintances asked recently about the dark dried things that look obscene which he had noticed in some Chinese stores. What were those things?
And, if they were food, how did one cook them?

Hoi Sam

Those objects are sea slugs, also called sea cucumber or trepang. Holothurids, lacking a formal brain or central nervous system, and rather primitive.
And yes, they are edible. Quite tasty, in fact. Sea cucumbers are very nutritious, and considered tonifying for middle-aged and elderly folks, especially good for people with arthritis and high blood pressure. Of course like many odd or suggestive ingredients, they are also often thought to be excellent either for the reproductive organs or the 'delicate' tissues.
But their main appeal is that besides a pleasant gelatinous texture, they absorb flavourings and sauces nicely.

When harvested, sea cucumber is usually gutted and cleaned, horny parts trimmed, then simmered briefly in salted water before being rolled in ashes and dried till shrunk and hard. It should keep nearly forever in that state.

To prepare dried sea cucumber for the pot needs a bit of pre-prep.

Place dried sea cucumber in a pot of water and soak for twelve hours. Change water, and simmer for an hour or two with some slices of dried ginger, let it cool. Remove and rinse. Clean the outside with the vegetable brush, and remove any hard parts or placques of calcined tissue near the outer surface. Then place it in freshly simmering water with a pinch of sugar and a few slices of ginger. Let it cool, and place the container in the refrigerator. The next day dump out the water and refill with cold water.
Repeat as needed, which for smaller sea cucumbers may be three days soaking total. Larger sea cucumbers may require up to four or five days of soaking with daily changes of water.
When it has softened and doubled in size, which will usually be the third day, remove and rinse.
Open it up and make sure that no sand or grit remains in the cavity.

Braised Sea Cucumber

One or two softened sea cucumbers sliced into large chunks across.
3 spring onions, chopped large.
3 slices ginger.
Quarter cup Sherry.
1½ cups chicken stock.
6 dried black mushrooms, soaked till soft, stemmed and cut in half.
One TBS oyster sauce.
One TBS soy sauce.
One Tsp. sugar.
1 TBS cornstarch dissolved in one TBS cold water.
Drizzle of black vinegar.
Drizzle of sesame oil.

Put some oil in the wok and sauté the ginger and spring onions. Seethe with the sherry, and add the chicken stock and sea cucumbers. Cook on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and a careful drizzle of black vinegar, the turn the heat low and simmer for about ten minutes.
Stir in the corn starch water and add a jigger more sherry. Add the sesame oil for fragrance, and when the liquid turns velvety, decant onto a serving dish.

This recipe can be modified by including meats or vegetables, and the sauce improved by judicious additions. The horizon is endless.
But as the main appeal is the savouriness of the sauce as absorbed by the main ingredient, it is wise not to go crazy.
Keep it simple.

The merest pinch of five spice powder might not be misplaced.
Some freshly ground white pepper can also be added.
Cilantro as a garnish is a nice touch.

I'm actually quite fond of sea cucumber, and consider it splendid for birthdays and celebrations.
My birthday is coming up soon.
I don't think I'll be having any sea cucumber this year.
Just like all previous years. Really, there's nothing to celebrate.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.


Anonymous said...

So when exactly is your birthday?

The back of the hill said...

October 13th.

Anonymous said...

Add sliced pork to the dish above for extra delicious!

The back of the hill said...

Anonymous at 10:22 PM,

I have taken your advice and written a post showcasing precisely that idea:
Sea Cucumber Revisited

Sea cucumber with pork.

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