Adventures in echinoderm-eating

Posted: Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Millions on the planet, mostly in Asia, consider it a delicacy. But the author's first attempt at cooking the echinoderm known as trepang, beche-de-mer ("sea grub" in French), sea cucumber and sea slug garnered mixed reviews.

It is also touted in Australia as an arthritis treatment, said diver Janusz Kunat.

"For a while I was chewing on the skins, but it doesn't work, I can tell you that," Kunat said.

The skins, like those of starfish, hold silica inside; at some point, chewing them is like biting sand.

Most people agree that if you have to clean the sea cucumbers, it's not worth it. The viscera are sticky, smelly and difficult to contain.

Nonetheless, those who deal with them often enjoy them occasionally. Kunat likes them marinated like herring.

"If you really want to enjoy them," said Kristin Cieciel, who studied the animal, "fry them."

Alaska Glacier Seafoods sells to its Asian markets neat two-pound frozen packs with no guts or skins.

In the Empire breakroom, whole carcasses, about the size of a small chicken breast but way stranger looking, were sautéed briefly in butter. The deliberate strategy was to introduce an unfamiliar phylum to the palate as gently as possible.

Though not that closely related, they taste a lot like squid or clams. Their delicate flavor - "Bland," corrected reporter Pat Forgey, "Somebody's been watching too much Food Network" - is easily overshadowed by butter and lemon.

They also exude a certain liquid when cooked. It's not unlike other meats, but not quite the same, in that it turns into slime upon cooling.

A chowder the next night, thick with Yukon gold potatoes and bacon, with the cucumber sliced into strips and added at the last moment, was better received.

It may help some not to know what they're eating, though.

"I can't believe I ate that," said one taster, after seeing a picture of the spiny charmer.

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