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 WORM (海腸, hǎi cháng)
Regions of use: China, Japan, Korea
Tasted at: New Kowloon Tang (新九龙塘) // 920 Tongchuan Road, near Lanxi Road (铜川路920号, 近兰溪路) // Closest Metro Stop: Zhenru (真如) Line 11
Squirmy, cylindrical, slimy, and brainless, the sea worm looks more likely to burst out of your gullet in a sci-fi horror flick than go down it at mealtime. Naturally, this attribute piqued our oddball appetites, and we were off to chew our way into yet more uncharted culinary territory.
Sea worms (Urechis Unicinctus), also known as “spoon worms” or “sea intestines,” are a fairly common sight at fish markets throughout much of China, but their culinary origins remain somewhat hazy. Some scholarship claims that the Chinese began cooking sea worm less than half a century ago (a mini-blip in a culinary history which spans around five millennia), while other sources state that it didn’t become a house-hold ‘kitchen’ name until 1980 – making sea worm perhaps one of the few items to be inducted into Chinese gastronomy during many of our lifetimes.
However, Shandong fishermen have used sea worms as bait since long ago, so it’s plausible that a fisherman who was returning hungry from an unsuccessful outing, might’ve taken a gummy bite out of one once.
Sea worms have seen longer use in Korean cuisine, where they’re sliced into tubes and served still pulsating on the plate, seemingly unaware that they’ve been hewed into pieces.
Though few ancient records describe the sea worm’s “powers,” it’s likely that the Chinese perceived the sea worm’s rubbery consistency as a textural marvel of similar caliber to sea cucumber and shark’s fin. And how can we avoid its “whap-you-in-face-obvious” phallic appearance, which has led the sea worm to be deemed somewhat of a marine viagra, and earned it the nickname “sea penis.”
On a less carnal note, studies show that the sea worm’s organs house vital fatty acids while its skin contains collagen, a protein that boosts organ function, among other benefits. Which, for us, was good enough reason to hunt down some of these oceanic phalluses at Tongchuan Road Seafood Market.
Navigating the depths of Tongchuan Road Seafood Market
If you’ve ever wandered through an aquarium and secretly hoped you were allowed to eat some of the creatures at the end, then Tongchuan Fish Market is your fantasy come to life. Here, you can select from a treasure trove of aquatic eats including Tasmanian King Crab, live octopus, and geoduck (a mega-clam with a siphon like an elephant’s trunk), and either haul them back to your home kitchen, or have them prepped at one of the market’s restaurants.
Multiple vendors offer sea worms but almost every one lists a different price. We’ve heard mongers name 18RMB, 50RMB, or even 100RMB for a half-kilo of worms, so be ready to bust out those bargaining skills you’ve honed through countless exchanges of squawks with fake-market salesmen.
After picking a vendor at 871 Tongchuan Road, we peeked inside the sea worm tank to observe a jumble of the fleshy pink critters heaving and squirming against one another. And let’s just say they looked so penis-like that it appeared as if a bunch of uncircumcised members had decided to detach themselves and live out their days as marine invertebrates. We poked one tentatively with a finger, prompting it to recoil slightly and then resume swaying nonchalantly underwater. It was dinnertime.
We bought a half-kilo of the suckers and shlepped it over to one of the fish market’s chief venues, New Kowloon Tang, where we chose to have the critters stir-fried (38RMB).
Slurping down sea worms
The entrance to New Kowloon Tang
Our plate consisted of a heap of chives and ginger ringed by hollow sections of pink worm, which looked like invertebrate rigatoni. We nabbed a tube with our chopsticks and bit in.
Within the first chew, we noted that the worm had a briny kick similar to a clam while the texture combined the squish of pork intestine with the resiliency of latex. After mashing the piece up and down between our top and bottom molars for quite a while, it finally became malleable enough to gulp down. But the elasticity didn’t overshadow the flesh’s refreshingly salty essence like that of quality shellfish, and we found ourselves gnashing our way through every last tube.
As of yet, no one’s ever proven the sea worm’s virility-enhancing powers to be true. And to be honest, if every food that was ever deemed an aphrodisiac, was in fact, an aphrodisiac, every man would be popping one that neither a chainsaw nor an erotic pic of Swamp Thing could reduce to normal size.
But despite their phallic nature and martian countenance, sea worms basically boil down to decently tasty, if rubbery ocean critters. And for only 38RMB, sea worms definitely rank as the everyman’s exotic eat. Though perhaps not to the point where you’d want to stick toothpicks in them and serve them on a platter at an expat holiday housewarming.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Bird’s nest
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].