Sea cucumber

Sea Cucumbers are marine animals with a leathery skin and an elongated body containing a single, branched gonad. Sea cucumbers are found on the sea floor worldwide.  They are found in greatest numbers in the Asia Pacific region.  Many of these are gathered for human consumption and some species are cultivated in aquaculture systems. The harvested product is variously referred to as trepang, bêche-de-mer or balate. Sea cucumbers serve a useful role in the marine ecosystem as they help recycle nutrients, breaking down detritus and other organic matter after which bacteria can continue the degradation process.

Most sea cucumbers, as their name suggests, have a soft and cylindrical body, more or less lengthened, rounded off and occasionally fat in the extremities, and generally without solid appendages.  Sea cucumbers can be found in great numbers on the deep seafloor, where they often make up the majority of the animal biomass.  Sea cucumbers form large herds that move across the bathygraphic features of the ocean, hunting food.  They are used in fresh or dried form in various cuisines. In some cultural contexts the sea cucumber is thought to have medicinal value.

Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy. A number of dishes are made with sea cucumber, and in most dishes it has a slippery texture. Common ingredients that go with sea cucumber dishes include winter melon, conpoy, kai-lan, shiitake mushroom, and Chinese cabbage.  Sea cucumbers destined for food are traditionally harvested by hand from small watercraft, a process called “trepanging” after the Indonesian trepang). They are dried for preservation, and must be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine soups or stews.

Many commercially important species of sea cucumber are harvested and dried for export for use in Chinese cuisine.  In the far north of Queensland, Australia, sea cucumber are harvested from the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea.  The Asian market for sea cucumber is estimated to be US$60 million. The dried form accounts for 95% of the sea cucumber traded annually in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan. I t is typically used in Chinese cuisines. The biggest re-exporters in the trade are China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  In Japan, sea cucumber is also eaten raw, as sashimi or sunomono, and its intestine is also eaten as konowata, which is salted and fermented food (a variety of shiokara). The dried ovary of sea cucumber is also eaten, which is called konoko.  Much of the preparation of sea cucumber goes into cleaning and boiling it, then stewing it in meat broths and extracts to infuse each sea cucumber with flavour.  Chinese folk belief attributes male sexual health and aphrodisiac qualities to the sea cucumber, as it physically resembles a phallus, and uses a defense mechanism  as it stiffens and squirts a jet of water at the aggressor. It is also considered a restorative for tendonitis and arthritis.

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