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Sea Cucumbers: Expensive and Adored

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Summer Volume: 2018 Issue: 25(2) pages: 23 to 26

Some Americans try new or unusual foods. Rare is the one who prefers the most expensive ones, particularly if they look ugly, and the sea cucumber fits that bill.. The Chinese deem them the ‘ginseng of the sea’ and do like their name more than the name used in the past. Then its name was ‘sea rat.’ Many believe eating these sea creatures can extend one’s life.

Who would not want to eat a creature that extends one’s life? Sea cucumbers are echinoderms in the Stichopus genus, and they are popular in noodle or vegetable dishes, and when made just by themselves. These swimmers upgrade many a dish when they are mixed with other foods of the sea. Related to star fish and sea urchins, they are expensive and rare, two other reasons to adore them.

Early written references to them are from the sixth century in and the Canon of Gastronomy. They were harvested along Chinese coasts and had been for a long time, almost two thousand years to be specific. No longer easily available there, now the Chinese need to fetch them from hundreds of miles away. One such place is Sri Lanka.

Once, when fishing there, the king ordered Chinese vessels away from his coasts. According to a 1445 volume, The Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula, they could still be fished there but now need to capture the king; to do so. They did figure out how, and how to prepare these creatures better. Neither made that king happy.

Years later, Yuan Mei, a popular chap who wrote about how to simmer them in chicken or pork soup until very soft wrote about them. Chinese chefs are still doing that, still stir-frying them with ginger and scallions, simmering them with dried shrimp until more fragrant, and preparing them many other ways to make them delicious.

According to a Ming Dynasty description written some time between 1368 and 1640, sea cucumbers were said to be warming and restorative, and touted as enhancing male virility. They were said to be better than eating the penis of a donkey; and that was touted for males to enhance their own. Called hai shen in Chinese, which translates to ‘sea slug,’ many were tempted to consume them even though this name was not appetizing. Men knew them as ‘poseng’ and they wanted to eat them for that reason. The Cantonese called them hoy sum.

Xia Qizhi, a 16th century Ming writer was able to trace them to those who first harvested them in the North Sea; TCM practitioners wrote about their centuries-old medicinal properties. The Cantonese called them ‘luck’ or ‘joy’ as they watched them expand in water; is this a hope that the male penis will expand. Now called ‘sea vegetables,’ there are few if any negative thoughts about them. Most were washed away when they purchased them probably because of their price. There are two kinds, one gray and smooth, the other with spikes on their exterior. Both are seen on page 23. Non-Chinese like them less knowing they are slimy, this texture turning them off The ones with bumps are called ‘prickly sea cucumber’s’ and the Chinese do prefer them. They are often blacker and smaller than the smooth gray ones that the Chinese knowas as ‘plum blossoms’. These newer names have increased their appreciation, as has being able to purchase them soaked, insides cleaned out, and needing less handling. We purchase ours that way, too, or frozen.

We change the water several times a day, and add several slices of fresh ginger and a scallion to keep their fishy aroma low to non-existent. Chinese friends put theirs in boiling water and reduce the heat to a simmer for half an hour, then turn the heat off and continue to soak them for two days. This helps improve their texture. When very soft, we cut them open, remove all sand and entrails, rinse them, re-soak them overnight, and make them ready to cook. Purchasing them pre-soaked does skip a few days before simmering them for thirty minutes.

For those that buy them dried, they need a few days more pre-soaking them. We are already anxious to cook them, and are willing to pay for that saving of time. One fish vender told us to buy lots dried at the same time, and after soaking them for two or three days, to freeze them in small batches to save money and time. He said they stay frozen for several months, and then simply defrost them in cold water for an hour or two until they are soft, then they can be cooked.. We did this and do like his suggestion, Just do not forget to cut the belly open, rinse them well, after taking out their intestines, rinse them once or twice more and then cook them.

We then blanch them with ginger and scallions, and stew or double-boil them at this point. One Chinese friend cooks hers with prepared fish maw, dried shrimp, dried squid, and ham. She adds them to all her soups and stews; and we like her suggestions the best. They are great cut small and put in soups and stocks; this does improve the flavor of both.

Here are some recipes for your pleasure; do make and enjoy them often.

Braised Sea Cucumbers

3 sea cucumbers, soaked and softened
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons Yunnan ham, slivered
3 Tablespoons bamboo shoots, slivered
½ small carrot, peeled and slivered
5 slices fresh ginger, slivered and divided in half
5 scallions cut in half the long way, then tied in knots.
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 cup soup stock
2 Tablespoons cornstarch


1. Cut open, then remove sand and internal organs from sea cucumbers, and rinse then in cool water,
2, Heat wok with the wine, black vinegar, sesame oil, and one cup boiling water, and simmer for ten minutes, then remove the sea cucumber pieces, and cut them on an angle into half-inch pieces.
3. Add ham, bamboo shoot, carrot, and half the ginger pieces, and the sea cucumber pieces and reduce heat and simmer for twenty minutes, then add half the scallion knots. And simmer them minutes more.
4. Add all the other ingredients except the cornstarch and simmer fifteen minutes more,
5. Mix cornstarch with equal amount of water, add and bring to the boil, stirring until thickened, then serve.

Shrimp Balls and Sea Cucumber

1 pound shrimp, veins and shells discarded
1 sea cucumber, cleaned and cooked until soft, sand and intestines removed, rinsed, then slivered
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1 medium egg white
2 teaspoons cornstarch
5 small Shanghai cabbage, each cut in two
1 Tablespoon oil
3 large garlic cloves, peeled ad slivered
2 sliced fresh ginger, slivered
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons abalone or fish sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch


1. Mash shrimp, add salt and sugar, and stir for three minutes, then add egg white and cornstarch and make into a paste. Shape into ten to twenty balls and set in a steamer basket and steam for five minutes, then remove and set aside to cool.
2. Pour boiling water in a bowl on the Shanghai cabbage, and let sit for five minutes, then drain and set out around a platter.
3. Heat a wok, add the oil, then stir-fry the garlic and ginger for one minute, then add the oyster sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and fish sauce, and stir for one minute.
4. Mix cornstarch with same amount of water and set aside.
5. Add the sea cucumber slivers to the wok, and stir for two minutes.. Then add cornstarch mixture and the shrimp balls stirring until thickened, and stir another minute, then pour in and around the Shanghai cabbage, and serve.

Sea Cucumbers and Beef Tendon

3 small softened spiked cooked sea cucumbers
½ pound beef tendons
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 sliced fresh ginger, each cut into 4 pieces
3 scallions, angle sliced
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
dash ground black pepper
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon hot oil


1. Cut open and remove sand and intestinal matter in the sea cucumbers and angle cut thinly, then heat a wok, add the oil, and stir-fry the ginger and the scallions, and the sea cucumbers for ten minutes.
2. Now, boil one cup water, add ginger, scallions, the tendon and the sea cucumbers and simmer for twenty minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients but not the cornstarch and the hot oil, boil vigorously for three minutes.
3. Now add the cornstarch and the same amount of cold water, stir and thicken, then serve.
4. Add scallions, soy sauce, salt, sugar, black pepper, and rice wine, and the hot oil. Then reduce the heat and add sea cucumber pieces and simmer for half an hour, then serve.

Shrimp Stuffed Sea Cucumber

½ pound peeled shrimp, their veins removed and discarded
1 egg white
3 Tablespoons cornstarch divided in three parts
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar


1. Mince shrimp and mix with the egg white, salt, sugar, and one-third of the cornstarch and cover in the refrigerator for one hour.
2.dust the sea cucumbers with the second third of the cornstarch and stuff with the shrimp mixture, and dust them with the rest of the cornstarch and set aside for half an hour; and dust them again, once or twice, as needed.
3. Put stuffed sea cucumbers in a steamer basket over boiling water and steam for twenty minutes, then angle cut them, and put these piece on a platter and serve.

Stuffed Sea Cucumber

½ pound peeled shrimp, their veins removed and discarded
1 egg white
3 Tablespoons cornstarch, divided in two parts
5 soaked black prickled sea cucumbers, sand and intestines removed and discarded from them, then rinsed and dried with paper towels
½ teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
3 Tablespoons osmanthus jam or syrup
3 Tablespoons diced abalone
3 Tablespoons water chestnut powder
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice vinegar
1 Tablespoon chicken fat
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large lettuce leaves


1. Mince shrimp and mix with the egg white and the water chestnut powder and set this aside in the refrigerator for one hour.
2. Dry sea cucumber inside and out and rub one part of the cornstarch on its inside.
3. Mix one part of the cornstarch with the salt, sugar, jam, diced abalone, and the rice vinegar, and the last part of the corn starch and stuff the cornstarch-dusted sea cucumbers with this mixture, and refrigerate for half an hour.
4. Heat a wok, add the vegetable oil, then fry the stuffed sea cucumbers turning as needed, for three to five minutes until tan. Then remove to paper towels for two minutes then put them angle-cut them in half, and put these pieces on a lettuce-lined plate, and serve.

Beijing Sea Cucumbers

1 pound soaked, sea cucumbers, sand and intestines discarded, then thinly angle sliced
5 slices fresh ginger root, minced. Divided in half
1 cup chicken broth
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
5 scallions, cut into half-inch pieces separating the white and green parts
3 Tablespoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1½ Tablespoons of cornstarch
1 pound firm doufu, slivered
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 water chestnuts, slivered
5 cups steamed rice


1. Rinse the sliced sea cucumbers then dry with paper towels and add half the fresh ginger and the stock and bring to the boil for one minute, drain and discard the ginger, re-rinse the sea cucumbers under cool water for one minute, then dry with paper towels.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the oil and the other half of the ginger and stir-fry for one minute, then add the doufu pieces, the white scallion pieces, and the broth.
3. Mix well, and then add the rice wine, sugar, and the water chestnut slivers and stir-fry for one more minute, then add the broth, oyster sauce, and the sea cucumber pieces and simmer for three minutes before adding the sesame oil pre-stirred with the cornstarch. Bring this to the boil, and as soon as it thickens, stir well, reduce the heat, add the doufu pieces, and simmer for five minutes.
4. Serve with or on the rice.

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