Adventureater: Sea Cucumber
Written by Bwog Staff
A sea cucumber in the ocean surf
Bwog food editor Jon Hill learns this week to trust others’ instincts after sampling an oddity of the deep.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from sea cucumber.
I certainly had fair warning they might be unpleasant. Several times my friends had tried to convince me to stay away from the slug-like sea creature, including one marine biologist friend who has studied them in Australia. She knows how odd an animal the sea cucumber can be, and she worried that eccentricity might show up in their taste.
“I mean, they puke their guts out,” she told me.
Only later did I find out what she meant. Sea cucumbers apparently have the ability to expel their entire digestive tracts when stressed, a defense mechanism that makes entirely no sense. Imagine if you vomited your stomach when a mugger accosted you–yes, the mugger would probably flee, but then you’d be left with bigger problems than a stolen wallet.
That may be the least of the sea cucumber’s biological weirdities, though. They breathe through what is essentially their anus, they can shoot jets of poison from their rear-ends that kill all nearby fish, their genitals are located on their heads, and they have yellow blood.
Oh, and some Asian cultures consider sea cucumbers to be an aphrodisiac. (Take a look at the photo below and I’ll give you three guesses why that might be.)
Sea cucumbers sold in bulk at market
Armed with this knowledge and yet still determined to eat sea cucumber, I guess I pretty much deserved what was coming to me: a big bowl of ugly from Chinatown’s Nice Green Bo restaurant.
The place actually came recommended to me for its dumplings, which New York food critics and Chinese Americans alike have praised over the years. Lines outside Nice Green Bo’s main entrance Friday night also point to the food’s high caliber, for few would wait outside an hour to enjoy the restaurant’s operating room ambiance or its brusque waiters.
And the dumplings really are good. It’s the sea cucumber that is so foul.
The bottom-feeding, oblong creatures are sliced into coins and boiled in salty broth before being plopped in a thick, hazy liquid complete with chunks of yellow fish, beaten egg fragments, and a giant dollop of brown oil. The resulting whitish stew has a sharp fishy smell and jiggly viscosity that prevents a heavy spoon from sinking below the surface. Looking into the bowl, I realized I was in deep on this one.
The sea cucumber and its mottled brown skin resembled bits of gelatinous potato, quivering in the spoon as I lifted it from the murky gloop. Once I bit into a hunk, I was instantly repulsed by its extremely rubbery, granular flesh that quickly broke apart into a dozen chewy, crunchy balls of faintly fishy flavor.
Perhaps if the sea cucumber had a stronger taste on its own, the experience might have been palatable–squid, for instance, is rubbery, but it rewards you with a distinct flavor. Even chewing gum gives your jaw more than exercise alone.
But, suspended in a bowl of mucilaginous seafood-egg gumbo, sea cucumber contributes little else but nauseating texture, forcing you to relive the sickening soup with each chew. I wanted to follow the animals’ example and puke my own guts out. Fellow diners also had trouble with the dish, commandeering the nearest waitress to remove the bowl the instant I announced I had all I could take.
Sea cucumber is not a culinary adventure I wish to revisit. In the future, I think I’ll pay more attention to the warning signs: when all of your friends and a marine biologist are telling you not to eat the butt-breathing, poisoning-shooting sea creature, the indications are not favorable.
Some things just don’t belong in a soup bowl.
WHAT IT IS: Sea cucumber soup
WHERE IT IS: Nice Green Bo, 66 Bayard Street (Chinatown)
HOW MUCH IT IS: $8.95, serves at least two people
HOW TO GET THERE: Take the 1 line to Times Square and transfer to the Q. Get off at Canal Street and walk east three blocks. Turn right at Mott Street, continue south, and turn left at Bayard Street.