Foodstuff: Dried Sea Cucumber
You might be forgiven for mistaking the above two objects for fossilized dinosaur droppings but they are, in fact, a dried marine delicacy commonly called ‘Sea Cucumber’. These ‘cucumbers’, also known as ‘beche-de-mer’ or ‘trepang’ are widely harvested and consumed but are especially popular in Chinese cookery where they are known as 海参 or ‘hǎishēn’, meaning ‘sea ginseng’. Like tofu, these delicacies are prized more for their texture rather than their intrinsic flavor, which is practically non-existent and they are typically braised, or otherwise cooked with rich sauces and other ingredients from which they then absorb flavor.
Despite being called sea ‘cucumbers’, these culinary treats are actually a type of marine animal and, while it is possible to buy then fresh in some places, or occasionally frozen, they are commonly sold in the dried form you see above. Accordingly, sea cucumbers must be reconstituted before use and, although you will sometimes find them being sold with this process already completed, more commonly you will need to do it at home. It is a bit of a lengthy process and we will be looking at this below…
I have never seen a Sea Cucumber alive or in its fresh state, but the picture above (courtesy of Wikipedia’) shows one variety in its natural setting. There are quite a few varieties that are harvested for food and I am not sure if the one pictured above is in that group. It does, however, look rather like one of the types in the first image. Some sorts actually have these pointed protuberances all over their body that look like fleshy spines and their appearance is really quite alarming. I have seen these sorts in some of my recipe books but not the actual article as yet.
Here you can see the same dried pair with my hand in the frame so you can get some idea of the scale. These are a pretty common size but larger ones can be found as well. By the way, when in their completely dried form, the cucumbers really do feel like fossils and will even give off the same ‘clinking’ sound as bits of masonry when you bang them together.
The actual process of reconstituting is quite time consuming and, generally, the length of the time depends upon size and can take from roughly 3 to 7 days. Basically, the process involves soaking, or a combination of repeated soaking and simmering, and I’ll be using the latter for our purposes in this post…
The first step is to simply soak your cucumber in fresh, unsalted water for two whole days, changing the water at least once during the process. I have read in many sources that you must avoid the water being contaminated with oil, grease or rice. I am not sure what happens if you do as I have not tested it but, as long as you use a relatively clean receptacle, this ought not to be an issue.
Here you can see a still dried cucumber alongside one that has been soaked for two days. You can certainly see that the degree of expansion is quite dramatic. I was actually surprised by the rate of reconstitution thus far as, the last time I did this using similarly sized cucumbers, they still remained like little rocks after the first two days whilst these ones are quite supple and not that far off being ready for use. I really don’t know what factors are in play to account for this difference.
After the first two days, you continue by bringing the cucumbers to a boil in a pot of water, allowing them to simmer for about 30 minutes or so and then removing he pan from the heat. Allow the pot too cool and then refrigerate to soak further for another 24 hours. The idea here is to repeat this for as long as it takes to make the cucumbers really soft and pliable. These two were probably at this stage after the first simmering but I am going to err on the side of caution and do it twice.
At some point during the process, you may have to eviscerate your cucumbers. In the past, I have bought ones that were gutted before drying but, if you can’t find these, you will have to do it yourself. Don’t worry, though, after being dried, the process is rendered a lot less messy than gutting fish.
First, make a long incision along the underside surface and then use your fingers or other implement to scrape out the ‘innards’. Afterwards, rinse the interior with running water to clear away any remaining sand or other detritus.
In this case, I likely could have done the gutting right after the first two days of soaking but I thought waiting a further day would be fine. Basically, you should do his step as soon as the flesh is soft enough to permit it.
Many recipes suggest that you use a brush or other implement to scrape away the more darkly pigmented areas. This won’t really influence the taste of the eventual preparation but it can produce a more esthetically pleasing appearance. The actual cleaning can be a bit of a time consuming process and whether you choose to do it, and to what degree, is just a matter of personal taste…
Generally, the cucumbers are sliced before cooking, but I have seen recipes that use them whole. Quite often, a brief braising in water, or stock, flavored with ginger, scallion, and the like is employed before further cooking. If you are not going to use the cucumbers right away, they can be kept in water in the refrigerator for a few days. You may also, if you wish, do the braising in flavored stock or water before storage and use this as the storage medium. Alternatively, you can also freeze the cucumbers, either sliced or whole, or pre-braised or not, for lengthier periods.
As I mentioned above, sea cucumbers are generally cooked with ingredients whose flavor is then absorbed. Braising and pan-frying with sauces are the most common cookery methods. As for the texture, this will vary depending upon the length of cooking. Essentially, sea cucumbers once cooked have a chewy gelatinous quality but, with shorter cooking times, they also have a bit of an elastic ‘bite’ that is a bit reminiscent of Knackwurst, or he like.
Stay tuned for some recipes using Sea Cucumbers in upcoming posts…