What to eat: sea ginseng

0 CommentsPrint E-mail Global Times, April 9, 2010
Adjust font size:

After a busy day of business meetings with clients last weekend, it was time for the requisite Chinese banquet experience, the standard formula of which is as follows: the client spends a fortune ordering a lot of dishes, and the foreign ingrates regularly turn up their noses and fail to appreciate the spread. I'm sad to say that even after a long time in China, I too still eschew some dishes, especially the most expensive treat: the sea cucumber (hai shen, or sea ginseng).

The name "sea cucumber" is baffling to many a foreigner, as when this dish is served, the last word that comes to mind is cucumber. It looks like a stale stool that has been fished out of a squat toilet, dressed in a splash of water and garnished with green veggies for good measure.

Most commonly, a sea cucumber is served in a sour and peppery broth in a bowl that is slightly too small for the creature. With its head poking out of the soup, this serving style is supposed to make diners feel they are being served the largest of the sea cucumbers and are therefore getting their money's worth.

It's not only the shape that conjures up fecal images in the average laowai mind. The fact that this delicacy is dark brown in color, with shiny translucent skin covered in wart-like bumps only adds to its gut-wrenching appearance.

In China, the sea cucumber is known as a Yang (warming) food, with the reputation of being a general tonic for the body as well as an aphrodisiac. Rich in iron and containing minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc, the sea cucumber has been known to help ease arthritis pain and relieve joint discomfort.

Most commonly sea cucumbers are sold in dried form; preparation is a timely process requiring much skill. Any errors can result in a delicacy that tastes like the soles of old running shoes.

The dried variant needs to be soaked in water for up to four days, with regular changing of the water to keep it fresh. It is then boiled with sliced ginger or other seasonings to remove any fishy flavor and to soften the flesh. After these stages, the fleshy delicacy can be cooked and prepared in many ways: stewed with pork ribs, fried in various sauces or boiled in stock. The flavor will be determined by the cooking method, as the ever-exciting sea cucumbers simply adopt the flavors of the seasonings in which they are cooked.

In spite of that, across China, they are eagerly ordered by customers trying to impress guests and clients. For this is not exactly a cheap treat, with each serving of sea ginseng ranging in price anywhere from 50 to 500 yuan, or more.

So next time the host orders up sea cucumbers, think about how much it costs, and counter with the only two available options: decline politely, allowing someone else to enjoy two helpings, or, if you decide to take the plunge and tackle the strange-looking beast in front of you, ensure that you finish the entire dish, all while complimenting the host on how great it tastes to ensure they realize his or her efforts are appreciated.

Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comments

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from China.org.cnMobileRSSNewsletter