I once ate sushi everyday for a week and a half so needless to say I love seafood. I will try any seafood you put in front of me at least once. Heck, I even cooked live prawns while their little comrades watched from a glass bowl in the middle of the table while munching on a jellyfish salad. (Oh the joys of hot pot restaurants!) There is one sea creature, however, that I only eat because I have to . . . the sea cucumber.
If you have never tried this green, seafloor graving, turd-shaped delicacy, then consider yourselves lucky. I was introduced to this delectable cuisine at my first formal dinner in Linyi(China). The other foreigners and I had just finished giving speeches and English lessons at a local middle school. We were famished. After the obligatory figuring out who got to sit at the place of honor and all the small talk a formal dinner requires, we finally got to get. The dishes were brought out in rounds, and the first few were absolutely delicious plates of braised vegetables, steamed pumpkin, and spicy meats. Then came the bowl that changed my culinary life in China forever.
The bowl looked like an innocent oriental sugar bowl. I opened the lid, and there it was surrounded by mucus. I stared. My Russian counterpart, Ilia, eventually noticed my look of horrific confusion and leaned over to inform me the alien looking food was in fact a sea cucumber soup.
“It’s very good for your health,” He whispered. “It’s also very expensive and rude to refuse.”
I shuddered as I realized that I was going to have to eat it. Offending a host is an almost unforgivable sin in China. I decided to get it over with while the dish was still hot. Even though the soup looked like snot, it was actually a creamy bit of goodness that covered my pallet in a rich blend of classic seafood flavors. The soup made me feel more optimistic about the cucumber itself. The soup lied.
The cucumber was about the size of and not dissimilar to a gorilla’s thumb. I tried to cut it with the ceramic spoon (no knifes & forks in China), but it wouldn’t break apart. I watched as Ilia picked the whole thing up with his chopsticks and bit it in half. I gaged. The host noticed and asked what was wrong. I quickly recovered with a cough pretending to have choked on some of the soup. After he was assured I was okay, he insisted I try the sea cucumber because “it was a classic Chinese delicacy.”
I steadied my nerves, picked it up with my chopsticks, and bit. How Ilia had managed to bite half of it off while leaving the rest firmly in his chopsticks, I will never know. My teeth could barely break the toughness of the leather like meat. I managed with the use of my fingers to pull it in half, and then the chewing started. I chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed. Did I mention I chewed?
Our host was beaming with pride as I managed a smile. When I swallowed, I said, “We don’t have that at home. Thank you for ordering it.”
I eventually finished the other half, and I thought my days of sea cucumber were behind me. The cucumber, however, would haunt me for the next two years.
Various hosts served the dish at almost every formal dinner I had to attend. Since I was a vice-director for a department international office, I had to attend a lot of dinners. The blasted little turd never got more palatable. Things were even better when my American friend J was invited to dinners. J is a nice girl, but she is a very picky eater. She never tried the cucumber. She flat out refused after just tasting the soup. Her cucumber fell to me so I got two cucumbers with every dinner. (J if you are reading this, then know I love you but will never forgive you.)
I don’t regret my sea cucumber culinary adventures. If the studies about their health benefits are correct, then their less than appetizing taste has been extending my life by months. Furthermore, I have maintained many networking relationships and built a reputation as a good dinner guest. I still maintain that sometimes keeping the dinner table peace is more important than our gag reflex. I can’t wait to see what culinary escapades await me in the future.