By Benjamin Cost
It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
SEA CUCUMBER (海参, hǎishēn)
Regions of use: China (south & southeast), Japan
Tasted at: Dexingguan (德興館) // 622 Zhonghua Road, near Dongjiadu Road (中华路622号, 近董家渡路) // Closest Metro Stop: Xiaonanmen (小南门) Line 9
Anyone who’s ever perused a menu at one of Shanghai’s upscale seafood joints or strolled a dried goods street has no doubt encountered sea cucumber, or hǎishēn (海参). Long, slow-moving, spineless and faceless like a B-movie’s stop-motion space invader, this ocean-floor oozer arguably tops China’s heavyweight list of foodstuffs deemed bizarre by most expats. But like all Chinese dishes, sea cucumber claims a rich and lengthy past.
Often referred to as “sea slug” (although the sea slug is an entirely different animal) or the less glamorous “sea rat” (hǎishǔ), the sea cucumber’s utilization in cooking, in both Japan and China, has been cited as early as the fourth century AD. Asian food scholar Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients (full disclosure: your Shanghaiist correspondent is a direct relation to the book’s author) mentions a culinary encyclopedia from this period entitled The Canon of Gastronomy, which characterized the sea cucumber as an oversized leech. This ‘food bible’ has since vanished, but numerous accounts of sea cucumber-culling throughout history confirm that the edible echinoderm has been harvested by the Chinese for over a thousand years.
In fact, during this millennium, few places in the known world were safe from the sea cuc-craving Chinese, who scoured coastlines as far as East Africa, Australia, and Fiji to seek out their tubular bounty. One 1415 account tells of a ruler of today’s Sri Lanka who became so fed up with Chinese fishing for sea cucumbers off his shores that he banished their fleets from Sri Lankan waters. Not ones to be kept from delicacy, the Chinese invaded the king’s land and kidnapped him so they could resume harvest!
Clearly, for the Chinese, sea cucumbers possessed special characteristics worth warring over. According to Ming dynasty scholars, the sea cucumber harbored the same medicinal properties as the herb ginseng, hence the name hǎishēn, or “sea ginseng.” And naturally, its blatantly phallic shape has earned the sea cucumber a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac (an analogy that becomes all the more visceral when considering that the sea cucumber’s defense mechanism is to discharge its own fluids).
Today, the sea cucumber’s properties (some fact-based and some mythical) are still being harnessed by Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments including kidney disorders, high blood pressure, and the aforementioned impotence. It is scientifically proven, however, that sea cucumbers pack more protein (55%) than virtually any other food, have a low fat content similar to that of their vegetable namesake, and house a whole host of nutritional supplements – bodybuilders could probably toss them in a blender to concoct an exotic protein shake.
Cooking the Sea Cucumber
Preparing the gelatinous delicacy is an arduous and slippery task. Asian Ingredients explains:
When caught, sea slugs are dried as hard as a rock and shipped to market…..Place the sea slugs in a large bowl with warm water, and soak them for 3 days, changing the water every day. At the end of 3 days they should be softened; if not, continue another day or two. When they are soft, cut the sea slugs open lengthwise, and while rinsing them under cold tap water, clean the insides of debris and sand. Using your hands, pull out and rub away as much as you can. Rinse and then simmer the sea slugs in light chicken or pork stock for 10 minutes. Discard the stock, rinse the sea slugs in cold water, and scrape away the inside membrane of the animals. Simmer them again in fresh stock, which again should be drained and discarded at the end of 10 minutes. Rinse the sea slugs picking over them a final time if necessary.
And that’s just the initial prep-work. The final cooked result comes in a variety of forms, including sea cucumber stewed in various meat stocks, or coupled with other prized sea critters like abalone as part of a seafood soup. Basically, the sea cucumber acts as a gastronomic shapeshifter, able to assume the flavor of whatever ingredients it is paired with.
Seeking it out
Sea cucumber occupies a special niche in Shanghainese culinary tradition, which boasts its own unique trepang dish: large black sea cucumber braised in a shrimp roe and bean paste broth. To sample this delicacy at its most delectable, it is necessary to venture to its birthplace, Shanghai’s Dexing Restaurant.
Established in the Qing Dynasty (1883), this age-old eatery is the alleged pioneer of modern day Shanghainese cuisine, but it remains relatively unknown in the Western dining sphere – almost like a sacred sea cucumber shrine somewhat hidden from expat adventurers. When we asked a nearby hotel about Dexingguan’s whereabouts (no websites seem to list its correct address), we were informed that it’s for locals only (something we’ve heard before.)
Luckily for us we persevered, and other less surly Shanghai samaritans and self-proclaimed sea cucumber zealots guided us to the famed Dexingguan, which is situated at 622 Zhonghua Road, near Dongjiadu Road.
The Trepang Taste Test
The sea cucumber’s initial presentation at your table before its preparation is exactly what your sci-fi imagination would conjure up – a pale, jiggling cylindrical body seemingly just extracted from an arctic glacier during a dig for Paleozoic invertebrates.
Even when the cooked sea cucumber (280RMB) finally arrives at your table, it still looks like a giant flubbery space slug, only this time awash in brown sauce. Apparently self-conscious of the peculiar presentation to lǎowài (although we die-hard foodies love this stuff) the waitress quickly and deftly diced the sea cucumber beyond recognition.
Our sliced specimen
It was inevitably time for a bite. Quivering juicily while pinched between your chopsticks, the first sea cucumber morsel lulls you into believing that it will dissolve unctuously in your mouth like pork belly fat. But instead it offers little succulence; the only flavor being the brackish, clam-y shrimp roe and bean paste stock that soaks each piece. More texture than taste, the sea cucumber itself straddles the line between firm and jelly-like – a consistency that all sea cucumber dishes strive for but few achieve.
After carefully chewing and swallowing every last bite of the sizable, dare we say, “cu-cumbersome” specimen, we felt slightly bewildered. We had come to the restaurant expecting to devour an odd-looking but all around identifiable-tasting dish (“tastes just like chicken” comes to mind) and had left trumped. By contrast, we bit into an ocean denizen, that in accordance with its alien visage, tastes quite out of this world. Why? Because it really doesn’t taste like anything. Rather, the dish ultimately revolves around perfecting a specific gelatinous-meets-solid consistency, a foreign concept to many, but a textural theme that’s quite common in Chinese gastronomy (Shark’s fin is another delicacy coveted for its impossible melding of two similarly opposing mouth-feels, glutinous and brittle).
Not as savory or delicious as we might have hoped, but clearly texture takes precedence over flavor. With its infinitely fascinating backstory, nutritional and medicinal components, and an intriguing “non-taste” that provides a window into the Chinese culinary canon, sea cucumber warrants a nibble by all globally-minded eaters.