Samui Wining & Dining
Hardly a Vegetable

But sea cucumbers still find their way onto many plates


09They’re out there. Everywhere - and they’re not particularly pleasant.

If I were to tell you that these creatures exist all over our planet, come in a variety of shapes and a host of colours and can range in size from two centimetres to two metres, would you be concerned? What if I told you that they breathe through their ‘behind’, entertain visitors there, and if they don’t like the look of you, can project their internal plumbing directly in your face. If really upset, they will disembowel themselves in front of you. And that’s some of their nicer qualities. Oh, and some humans like to eat them.

Holothuroideans, or sea cucumbers, and their ancestors have been around a couple of hundred million years, give or take a day or so. And there are between 1,400 and 1,500 species subdivided into a couple of hundred genera and two dozen or so families. As they are found in 90% of the earth’s oceans and at all depths, no-one is absolutely sure. There could be more. Luckily for us, they do live in the sea, and haven’t acquired the ability to walk on the planet’s surface – yet! And they most definitely aren’t vegetables. If your common old garden variety cucumber behaved as they did we’d all be confirmed carnivores!

They are a rather unique group of echinoderms (marine invertebrates usually with a spiny skin such as the starfish) in that they are soft bodied with well-developed circular and longitudinal muscles. Modified tube feet surround the mouth and form a ring of tentacles. And additional tube feet can be found all over their bodies, usually hidden in the external body wall. Particularly sluggish, they ingest large amounts of water and sand, filtering out what is not used, and their respiratory system takes up most of its internal mass. One creature that takes advantage of the movement of water to the respiratory trees in the sea cucumber is the pearlfish or cucumber fish. About 15 centimetres long, this fish has a long, thin shape that suits it for living in the gut of its host. Perfectly hidden during the day, it emerges (you can guess from where) at night to forage, though it is not averse to the odd nibble of its host internal body wall. One particular snail, Parenteroxenos doglieli, is another parasite that lives in the body cavity of the sea cucumber. Additionally, scaleworm, harlequin and pinnotherid crabs reside externally, also having the occasional nibble. I can tell you can’t wait for the recipe!

Economically, sea cucumbers are important in two main ways. Firstly, some species produce toxins that are of interest to pharmaceutical companies seeking to learn their medicinal value. Some compounds isolated to date exhibit antimicrobial activity or act as anti-inflammatory agents and anticoagulants. And the Chinese have used them medicinally for thousands of years. Popularly known there as haishen, it roughly means ‘ginseng of the sea’. According to analysis by principles of traditional Chinese medicine, they can nourish the blood, aid kidney cleansing and moisten dryness of the intestines. In addition, sea cucumbers provide vitamins A, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and C, as well as the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. And recent studies in the United States (Journal of Natural History, Nov 2003) have shown that the connective tissue in sea cucumbers may lead to new and dramatically superior repairs for injuries to anterior cruciate ligaments, hamstrings and Achilles tendons. These are often injuries seen in football and rugby players.

As for the second economically important factor, well that’s in the eating. In Thailand they’re not a preferred delicacy and you’d have to look long and hard to detect them on a menu. Most often you’ll find them in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong and in Chinese communities around the world, predominately among the older generations. But even in these countries they don’t appear everywhere and the demand tends to be for the top five or six species, therefore the price may be at a premium for the best quality ones. Quite a number are dried and exported and you may find them in the Chinatown area of larger cities back home. Like tofu, sea cucumber is flavourless, but has the ability to soak up the flavours in sauces, soups and seasonings. It can be stewed, stir-fried, boiled and braised and is best when cooked in a rich broth. It has a feeling of a succulent jelly-like texture and can be slippery, so watch out. A popular recipe is Braised Sea Cucumbers with Black Mushrooms, where the sea cucumbers are marinated in ginger and soy sauce.

They may not appeal to everyone, but I think I’d rather encounter some on a plate than on the ocean floor. Particularly if they don’t like me!


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