Most foreigners liken sea cucumber with bicylce tire, but for Chinese it is a mine of nutrition
The sea cucumber is a gelatinous creature that is distantly related to star fish and sea urchins. Like these creatures, sea cucumbers have small tentacles around their mouth to take in food. It derives its name from the fact that it is shaped like a cucumber.
Sea cucumbers have been part of Chinese cuisine for centuries. They are not part of the everyday menu, as they are regarded an expensive delicacy, with a high nutritional value.
In traditional Chinese medicine, sea cucumber is ascribed salty and warm properties, and is associated with the Heart and Kidney meridians. It is believed to help nourish the Yin and blood, and is a tonic herb for treating the kidneys. It is used to treat a variety of conditions, including impotence and frequent urination.
Western visitors usually do not appreciate the rubbery mouth feel of the creatures. This aversion is reflected on the alternative name for sea cucumbers: sea slug.
The Chinese name for sea cucumber – haisen – literally means “sea ginseng.” This partly reflects the shape of sea cucumber, but also refers to the high nutritional value Chinese attach to this food.
Sea cucumbers really do not have a taste of their own. The taste has to come from the condiments with which it is prepared. They are usually served in a thick broth.
With the increase of the spending power of Chinese consumers, the production of sea cucumbers has increased considerable, as shown in the following table.
The largest production regions are Shandong and Liaoning provinces.
Chinese experts distinguish a number of types of sea cucumber products.
- Brine soaked sea cucumbers: soaked in strong solutions of salt; can be kept 3 – 6 months;
- Salted dried sea cucumbers: the most traditional type of treatment;
- Low salt dried sea cucumbers: basically the same as the traditional treatment, but with less salt;
- Freeze dried sea cucumbers: have to be stored under freezing conditions.
Instant sea cucumbers
Preparing sea cucumbers is laborious and several research institutes are developing instant sea cucumbers ready for consumption. A number of these have already been patented. However, it seems that none of these patents have so far resulted in actual products. A company in Qingdao (Shandong) has patented a process that includes steeping sea cucumbers in an infusion of several TCM herbs. A company in Qinzhou (Guangxi) has filed a patent for processed sea cucumber packed in a so called ‘soft can (ruan guantou)’, that can be heated in the pack before consumption.
Eurasia Consult can help you find Chinese patents for all types of foods.
The industry has been studying ways to convert sea cucumbers in higher valued products.
A company in Shandong has developed a process to extract peptides from sea cucumber. The product has obtained official registration as a health ingredient. It is said to help lower blood cholesterol, ease hypertension and relieve fatigue.
Another company in Shandong has developed a process to produce sea cucumber powder using enzymatic hydrolysis. It is promoted as a health food for people with a high risk to develop cancer.
To satisfy the growing demand for sea cucumbers, some companies have started to breed them in coastal water. A company in Liaoning has developed a ‘three-stage breeding method’, starting in shallow water and gradually transferring the animals to deeper water.
Another Shandong-based company, Haina Baichuan, has launched a breakfast replacement made from sea cucumber. It is marketed as ‘168 Selenium Pack’, referring to its high selenium content.
Sea cucumbers from Canada
Wild Canadian sea cucumbers, captured in the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia province, are now also finding their way onto Chinese food tables, as most Canadian people don’t consider the creature edible.
Canadian seafood processing company United Trans has signed a deal with Beijing Pharma in June 2015. Under the agreement, Canadian sea cucumbers will be allowed entry into China as a health product. At least 30% of 2014’s catch was imported into China.
The wild variety of sea cucumber is usually larger and rounder than a Chinese farmed creature. They also have little thorns on the cylindrical body’s skin and have a ring of tentacles around the mouth. Canadian sea cucumbers are claimed have greater nutritional and therapeutic value as compared to the ones farmed in China, because they are richer in nutrients, including holothurin compounds, minerals and protein, and are free of contaminants because they grow slowly in deep, cold waters. Holothurin is also known as sea cucumber saponin. North Atlantic sea cucumber contains four types of holothurin. Research indicates that holothurin may help fight obesity. The chilly waters also force Canadian sea cucumbers to swim a lot, resulting in more muscle texture in the body.
Now it is time to relax and watch this video that offers a look at the various aspects of growing, processing and eating sea cucumbers.
The Iceland connection
Wild sea cucumber from Iceland joined a coding system launched by AliHealth, a health arm controlled by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, to help ensure food safety. The tracing system demonstrates product information such as its origin, production date, customer transportation, and safety/quality information. The Iceland sea cucumber is sold in Hema Xiansheng, an emerging online-to-offline supermarket operated by Alibaba. AliHealth first launched such a system in mid-2016 for medicines and the latest move represents a further expansion of the system’s use in the food industry.
Global heating poses big threat
High temperatures have caused deaths of sea cucumbers in a large area in Northeast China’s Liaoning province in the summer of 2018. The water temperature reached 35 C to 36 C around 2 pm at some days, which is about 10 degrees higher that sea cucumbers can sustain. According to local fisheries departments, sea cucumbers began to die across the province from July 28, and the animals first to go were in pools with a depth less than 7 meters. This is yet another unpleasant effect of global heating on the food industry.
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Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.