sea cucumbers

In the NYT today, a fascinating story from Dzilam de Bravo, Mexico (“Quest for Illegal Gain at the Sea Bottom Divides Fishing Communities” by Karla Zabludovsky), beginning:

Whispers of high-speed boat chases, harpoon battles on the open sea and divers who dived deep and never re-emerged come and go around here like an afternoon gale.

The fishermen eye strangers — and one another — with deep suspicion. “We’ll tear them apart,” said one, Jorge Luis Palma, squinting into the horizon at a boat he did not recognize.

What has wrapped this village in such hostility?

Sea cucumbers.

Greart variation in sea cucumbers. One example:

The back story:

The spiky, sluglike marine animals are bottom feeders that are not even consumed in Mexico, but they are a highly prized delicacy half a world away, in China, setting off a maritime gold rush up and down the Yucatán Peninsula.

… There has been an indefinite ban on harvesting sea cucumbers, but it has been loosely enforced, and the black market is thriving.

With a growing Chinese middle class, demand for sea cucumbers has soared, depleting populations in Asian and Pacific waters because of overfishing.

“Sea cucumber fever,” as residents call it, has taken a toll here, too. Of the estimated 20,000 tons available in 2009, only 1,900 tons are left, according to Felipe Cervera, secretary of rural development in Quintana Roo State.

Wikipedia on sea cucumbers:

Sea cucumbers are echinoderms from the class Holothuroidea. They are marine animals with a leathery skin and an elongated body [essentially an open tube] containing a single, branched gonad. Sea cucumbers are found on the sea floor worldwide. The number of holothurian … species worldwide is about 1250 with the greatest number being in the Asia Pacific region. Many of these are gathered for human consumption and some species are cultivated in aquaculture systems.

Still more:

Sea cucumbers are marine animals of the class Holothuroidea used in fresh or dried form in various cuisines.

The creature and the food product are commonly known as bêche-de-mer (lit. “sea-spade”) in French, trepang (or trīpang) in Indonesian, namako in Japanese and in Tagalog it is called balatan. In Malay it is known as the gamat.

Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy.

There are a number of dishes made with sea cucumber as this ingredient is expected to have a strong cultural emphasis on health. In most dishes, the sea cucumber has a slippery texture. Common ingredients that go with sea cucumber dishes include winter melon, dried scallop, kai-lan [“Chinese broccoli”], Shiitake mushroom, and Chinese cabbage.

… Sea cucumbers destined for food are traditionally harvested by hand from small watercraft; a process anglicised into “trepanging” (after the Indonesian noun trepang).

They are dried for preservation purposes and have to be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine soups or stews.

There are many commercially important species of sea cucumber that are harvested and dried for export for use in Chinese cuisine

They are gelatinous, slippery, and crunchy, and virtually tasteless, but a fine vehicle for other tastes — sort of like a seabed version of grits. I was introduced to sea cucumber dishes by Jim McCawley, and, as it happens, I like the texture (not everyone does). They have other (purported) virtues:

Individually, the dried form is also used for traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese folk belief attributes male sexual health and aphrodisiac qualities to the sea-cucumber, as it physically resembles a phallus, and uses a defence mechanism similar to ejaculation as it stiffens and squirts a jet of water at the aggressor.

Links to four sea cucumber recipes, most using dried sea cucumber (which requires some considerable time to reconstitute); each header lists the main ingredients, which are combined with seasonings, oils, and sauces (the accompaniments):

Braised Abalone with Sea Cucumber: dried abalone, dried sea cucumber, dried scallops, broccoli florets, rich chicken stock (link)


(Cooked sea cucumber is not especially photogenic, so I’ll forgo photos for the rest.)

Braised Sea Cucumber and Mushrooms: dried sea cucumber, chicken drumsticks in bite-sized pieces, dried mushrooms (link)

Braised Sea Cucumber: dried squid, dried sea cucumber, pork belly in bite-sized pieces, Chinese black mushrooms (link)

Braised Sea Cucumber, Mushrooms & Chicken Feet: fresh or reconstituted sea cucumber, black mushrooms, fried chicken feet (link)

The flavor is supplied by the other main ingredients (abalone, chicken, pork, mushrooms) and the accompaniments, and the main ingredients are often contrasted in taste and texture with a brassica (broccoli, kai-lan, Chinese cabbage).


2 Responses to “sea cucumbers”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    I find the wording “this ingredient is expected to have a strong cultural emphasis on health” somewhat awkward; indeed, I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out what it’s supposed to mean.

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