Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, includes recipes and articles like The Cuisines of the Chiu Chow and the Hakka; Squash Pancakes; Bird's Nests; Steamed Sweet Bird's Nest Soup; Sea Cucumbers; and Sea Cucumbers Braised with Steamed Black Mushrooms.
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
The Chinese name for this creature of the sea is rather grand for something that is essentially a sea slug. It is called hai shen, or "ginseng of the sea," to describe what are considered its healthful properties. They are indeed a healthful, if not attractive, food, with more protein than an equal amount of beef and no cholesterol. The sea cucumber is liked by the elderly, who can digest its softness easily, and I have already noted that males regard it highly as a restorative. Because of its strength-giving properties, it is sometimes referred to in recipes as the black dragon.
The sea cucumber, a scavenger, lives on the ocean floor and is usually harvested from the beds of coral reefs. The waters off the North China Sea, off Japan, and along the coasts of Southeast Asia yield them, and the Chinese have gone as far as Australia in search of them. Once collected, they are plunged into boiling water, slit open to remove their entrails, then dried in the sun until quite hard. It is these sea cucumbers, hard and dried, that sit in large glass jars in Chinese markets and that range in price, depending on their provenance, from $100 to $300 a pound. The most expensive come from the waters off Japan.
Before they can be eaten, these dried sea cucumbers must be soaked, cleaned, and rinsed, usually over a 2-day period. First, place them in a bowl, add hot water to cover, and allow to soak for 1 day, changing the hot water three times. Drain and rinse the sea cucumbers. Slit them lengthwise, open them flat, and scrape away any residue of the entrails clinging to the flesh. Place them back in the bowl, cover them with hot water again, and allow to soak for another day, again changing the hot water three times. Drain and rinse again and place in a pot. Add water, ginger, and scallions in amounts indicated in individual recipes and simmer until tender. The sea cucumbers are now ready to use. Sea cucumbers also come presoaked and ready to use (see below), and they are also sold frozen. The latter do not need extensive cleaning or soaking. Just thaw them, clean any residue from their insides with your hands, and rinse well, and they are ready to use.
Sea cucumbers can be added to soups, braises, or stir-fries. Like many other dried foods, they have little or no taste of their own, absorbing the tastes of what they are paired with. What follows is a traditional sea cucumber preparation.
Sea cucumbers can be found already soaked and cleaned in some markets, usually sitting in large containers of water. They are ready for cooking with ginger and scallions as directed in the accompanying recipe. Presoaked sea cucumbers, like dried sea cucumbers, are sold by weight. To use them in recipes calling for dried sea cucumbers, you will need to buy about double the weight.
This page created June 2010
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