Image Credit: Catherine Ling
Chinese New Year is a festive occasion! It is a time of reunion, a time to of sharing, a season for delicacies, and a season to bond. In my humble opinion, the celebration ‘begins’ with a reunion feast with your loved ones on the eve of Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year Eve is the last day of the lunar year, somewhat similar to our 31sts December. The highlight of the night is the annual reunion dinner where people from all over the world would gather at their hometowns to usher in the new year and share blessings with their loved ones.
Reunion dinners can be in small or large scales. Some families resort to homecooked dishes at home while others have their reunion dinners at tip-top Chinese restaurants. However, one thing remains, which are the popular and must-have dishes on the table. Such include certain types of seafood dishes.
Abalones and sea cucumbers are considered prestigious dried seafood used in Chinese cuisine. You can check out our article on abalones here. Braised Abalone and Sea Cucumber is indeed a delicacy (and some might say, a must-have dish during CNY reunion dinners).
The dish brings about the meaning of prosperity (abalone:鲍鱼 bao yu, that translates to ‘to carry surplus’ ) and birth (sea cucumber: 海参 hai shen, similar to the word birth 生 sheng). The Chinese really do have a significance to every ingredient used!
What are Sea Cucumbers?
Although we call them sea cucumbers, they are not plants that grow in the sea. Instead, the sea cucumber is a marine animal under the class of Holothuroidea. These animals have an elongated body with a single, branched gonad with leathery skin. Sea cucumbers are found on seabeds around the globe, mostly in the Asia Pacific regions. They are given the name of sea cucumbers due to their resemblance to the cucumbers on land.
Sea Cucumbers as Food
The sea cucumber is known as bêche-de-mer in French, trepang in Indonesian, belatan in Tagalog, namako in Japanese and gamat in Malay. Sea Cucumber is a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine and can be found in most Chinese restaurants.
However, the preparation process of sea cucumbers is rather complex due to it being bland and tasteless. Hence, it is quite difficult to prepare the ingredient to turn it into a delicacy. Cleaning and boiling the sea cucumber has a rather long preparation process to ensure it is edible. With the sea cucumber being tasteless, stewing in flavourful meat broths are essential to infuse each sea cucumber with taste.
Therefore, sea cucumbers are rarely served alone but always with some other seafood, such as abalone. Abalone has a distinct sweetness that when simmered in broth enhances the flavours.
Health Benefits of the Sea Cucumber
In some cultural context, sea cucumber is thought to have medicinal properties. The Chinese believe that sea cucumbers boost male sexual health and fertility due to its resemblance to a phallus (erect penis). The similarity is also attributed to the defence mechanism that the sea cucumber uses.
The body of the sea cucumber stiffens to squirt a jet of water at the aggressor, like experiencing an ejaculation. Tendonitis and arthritis are thought to be restored with the sea cucumbers’ high antioxidant properties. If you are aiming to lose weight, it is a great source of protein that is low in fat.
Common Edible Sea Cucumbers
Common types of sea cucumbers that are used for cooking are:
- Prickly Sea Cucumber
- Bald Sea Cucumber
- White Teat Sea Cucumber
Braised Abalone and Sea Cucumber
As aforementioned, the sea cucumber is often paired with abalone, scallops and assorted vegetables such as broccoli. To prepare this dish, it will require some patience and a thick and flavourful broth.
Patience is the key to ensure that the abalone and sea cucumber are soaked thoroughly before cooking. The seafood is simmered slowly in a slow cooker until soft and soaked with the broth. Broths can be made from chicken or pork bone stock. Some recommend the use of abalone juice in canned abalones to sweetened the dish.
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