The mid-nineteent century Parisian ‘Chinese’ menu I gave you the other day included a dish called oluthuries à la mandarine. This was a dish of Holothuria sp. – better known on the dinner plate as sea cucumber, sea-slug, bêche de mer, or trepang. This creature, so repulsive to many of us in the West,
lives on the sea-floor, and has a habit of disgorging its own intestines when annoyed – a habit which did not endear it to potential diners outside of Asia. One of its common names bears witness to this distaste: bêche de mer comes from the Portuguese bicho de mar, or ‘vermin of the sea.’
In Asia, trepang is an enormously important food, and has been so since ancient times. A large part of its success is due to the fact that the flesh lends itself very well to preservation by drying. The following instructions, from The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations (1885), by Peter Lund Smith, explain what the cook then does with the dried product:
The mode of cooking trepang is as follows: - Soak it in cold water for an hour, then clean it and scrape it carefully. Boil it for eight hours in water with a little salt added, wash, scrape and clean it anew ; and soak it in cold water for two hours. Then cover it with meat gravy, season and cook it for half-an-hour more, and serve it hot.
Quotation for the Day.
The woman just ahead of you at the supermarket checkout has all the delectable groceries you didn't even know they carried.