Dried Sea Cucumber – 海参
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 take their flavor.
What is Sea Cucumber?
Despite being called sea ‘cucumbers’, these culinary treats are actually a type of marine animal. I have never actually 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 quite sure if the one pictured above is in that group, but it does look rather like one of the dried types shown in the first image.
In addition to the first types already shown, there are also varieties of 海参 with spiny protuberances as seen above, which, for obvious reasons, are sometimes called ‘Prickly’ Sea Cucumbers. In any event, whichever variety you might come across in a culinary setting, you will, be dining upon a delicacy that is popular all across East and South-East Asia, and is, despite biological classifications, or any number of poetic names, is often referred to as a ‘Sea Slug’.
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, and some smaller ones, can be found as well.
Dried 海参 are surprisingly heavy and very dense. They actually feel like concrete and, if you knock a couple together, you get the same sort of ‘clinking’ sound as you would with two pieces of broken masonry. In consequence, the process of reconstituting them for use in recipes is extremely laborious and takes considerably more time and effort than reconstituting, say, Dried Chinese Black Mushrooms, or Fish Maw.
What is the Taste and Texture of Dried Sea Cucumber?
Well, Dried Sea Cucumber have no aroma, and it would be impossible to eat them, so any question of taste and texture is effectively moot. Once reconstituted however, the texture becomes very interesting, even if the taste is negligible.
It is often said that these creatures have no flavor, but that is not strictly true. There is a faint taste to them but, in truth it is not really describable except to say that there is a sense of tasting something, but it doesn’t taste like anything in particular. Once cooked in dishes, it doesn’t exactly absorb flavors, as is often said, rather you enjoy the texture while tasting the accompanying flavors.
As for the reconstituted texture itself? The best I can say is that it is very densely gelatinous and has a chewy quality that has a slight ‘stickiness’ to it, something like the skin on Pork Belly after it has been braised.
How do you Soak and Reconstitute Dried Sea Cucumber?
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 some cleaning is required as well.
The first step is to simply soak your cucumber in fresh, unsalted water for a minimum of 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. You should be aware, however, that I have soaked other for two days and still had them remain just as hard as rocks. I am not sure what factors are at play here, but be prepared to have the initial soaking take longer. Fortunately, though, the reconstituted one shown above is quite supple and not that far off being ready for use.
After the first two days or so of soaking, you continue the reconstitution process 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 the 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 these two steps 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 erred on the side of caution and did 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, though, 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. The scraped one above took a good half-hour to clean.
Using Dried Sea Cucumber in Recipes
Quite often, reconstituted Cucumbers are given an additional braising in water, or stock, flavored with ginger, scallion, and the like is 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. Following this, they are commonly sliced, or even chopped before further cooking, but in some recipes, typically involving braising or stewing, they may be cooked and served whole.
As I mentioned above, sea cucumbers are generally used with ingredients whose flavor ‘colors’ the dish, allowing for the texture to be enjoyed. Braising and pan-frying with sauces are the most common cookery methods, but deep-frying is sometimes used as well.
Here, this Cantonese style dish of Beef-balls with Sea Cucumber pairs seasoned meatballs with thin slices of 海参 in a rich sauce flavored with Shaoxing Wine.
The above dish, Spicy Pork and Sea Cucumber, is similar to the preceding one except that it ramps up the depth of flavor with Fermented Shrimp Paste and Chili.
The Beef and Sea Cucumber Dumplings shown above add a nice textural contrast to the beef filling with the use of chopped Sea Cucumber.