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              CAI LAN teaches you the ways to eat sea cucumber

              Column:FOOD CULTURE Time:2015-01-08

                  ~ When we talk about sea cucumber, I think of the Chinese chef whom I met in childhood in the south sea. He wore a long white Chinese gown. He did not wear any apron, but his clothes are not stained with any oil.

                  When I went shopping with him, he thought that all the ingredients were not good enough. Only the sea cucumber barely passed the test. He bought some, went into the kitchen, and cooked a table of twelve dishes, all made by sea cucumber. The dessert was sea cucumber slices soaked and stewed with  ginger and rock sugar. Everyone applauded.

                  So the way to cook sea cucumber is not just braised. There are so many variety, but the Chinese never thought to eat it raw.

                  Japanese and Korean people have the habit of eating raw sea cucumber. Could you eat such sticky things raw? I was in doubt at first. The chef took the sea cucumber from the water tank, clean it  with water, cut it from head to tail, remove the internal organs, and then rinse it and cut it into thin slices to serve on the table.

                  When I chewed it, I found it very hard.  The taste is slippery. With some soy sauce and wasabi, it still stinks. How could I eat such things?

                  After many times, I got used to it. Eating sea cucumber raw is nothing new. Is it delicious? Not really.

                  In the Izakaya bar, raw sea cucumber is not common, but the sea cucumber intestines is common. Salted wea cucumber intestines are known as KONOWATA. As Japanese of sea cucumber is NAMAKO, and intestine is WATA, so the sea cucumber intestines is KONOWATA.

                  The first time trying it, you will find that the texture and taste are more horrible than raw sea cucumber. It is difficult to accept. Why did such strange foods appear? It's all about poverty. When people are poor, they will make use of food that should be thrown away. In a word, they will use a lot of salt to preserve the food. The saltier, the better. Because it goes along with rice. Only salt is too simple, so stinky food are used.

                  Strangely, you will get tired of the precious marine products eaten by rich people, but you never get tired of these food of poor people. If you get used to the taste of KONOWATA, you will miss it when you drink sake. Therefore it is also called SHYUTO, literally, “sake thief”. It means that if you eat it, you will never have enough sake.

                  SHYUTO in glass bottle is available in Japanese food store. There is a way to eat it. That is to eat it with French cottage cheese that is as soft as cream. It pairs with KONOWATA perfectly. Then you would be a robber instead of thief of sake.

                  The glands of sea cucumber is also good to eat. The 3 delicacies of Japan is: Sea salted Sea Urchin, salted mullet roe (Karasumi) and BACHIKO. It originally means a pick of Samisen (a Japanese string instrument) made of bond. When people grouped together the glands of sea cucumber, it is large on one end and small on the other end. After sea cucumber being sun-dried, it looks like a pick.

                  A small piece of BACHIKO that takes so many procedures to make worth over 100 HK dollars. Grill it on coal fire, then it will swell. Tear it up, and it tastes like dried shredded squid. It is fantastic. Along the coast near Mount Kinka of Miyago prefecture, there is a kind of sea cucumber called golden NAMAKO. It is because its glands are gold in color, and precious as the gold sand under the sea.

                  Besides intestine and glands, the internal organs of sea cucumber include lung. The Chinese does not eat the previous two, but they do eat sea cucumber lung. It is imported into Hong Kong and called “osmanthus mussel”, but it has nothing to do with mussel. The Spanish eat them. Use a pottery bowl, and use olive oil to fry garlic. When it is hot, add the lung of sea cucumber. Stir fry it for a second. It is crispy, sweet and fresh.

                  People usually stir fry osmanthus mussel with XO sauce and celery. Sometime deep fry and with salt and pepper. It is just deep fried in oil and then dipped in salt and pepper. It is without class.

                  In Shandong province, sea cucumber is an important ingredient. There are various kinds of dried sea cucumber in supermarket and wet market. There are pre-soaked sea cucumbers, which ordinary family cook. But a chef must soak the sea cucumber himself. This is the method of a chef I met:

                  Grill dried sea cucumber on coal fire. Wash the sea cucumber. Then rub it with wood ashes from the stove.

                  “Why?” I asked, “if you use ashes to rub it, will it be clean?”

                  “The sea cucumber will swell more easily.”

                  Wash the sea cucumber after rubbing it with ashes. Soak it in warm water for 3 hours. Wash it again. Boil it in a pot for 3 hours. The sea cucumber started to swell.

                  Grill the sea cucumber. Use a knife to remove the impurity inside the sea cucumber. Crush a big piece of ginger, boil it with the sea cucumber for 3 hours. When they are soften, take them out. This was the most basic preparation. It is troublesome and make one speechless.

                  In all kinds of sea cucumber, the white one is cheaper. It is called jade sea cucumber or sea eggplant. The black and white strip one is better. Black sea cucumber and thorn sea cucumber are precious. The Cantonese usually stuff meet into sea cucumber.


                  On that day, the chef cooked shrimp with black sea cucumber, sour and spicy sea cucumber, braised sea cucumber, sea cucumber and duck, 3 seafood with sea cucumber, and assorted sea cucumber slices.

                  “Sea cucumber has no flavor. It must be cooked with other ingredients. Even when deep fried or stir fried, it must be cooked with other ingredients. Let me teach you a basic dish: stir-fried sea cucumber with spring onion.” The chef said.

                  Cut spring onion into the length of fingers, stir fry into gold-yellow. If it is a little burnt, that is alright. Add sea cucumber which is cooked in broth that makes of pork, ham, black chicken, pig skin and pig bones, stir fry the spring onion and sea cucumber for a second, add broth, boil them until the water evaporate, add wine, soy sauce, salt and sugar.

                  “Don’t you need to thicken them with cornstarch?”

                  “The sea cucumber has collagen. Only second-level chef would thicken it with cornstarch.” I still remember his smile today.