It’s quite rare that we are able to get fresh sea cucumbers. In the past, the only place we could enjoy them was in Chinese restaurants. But what the heck is sea cucumber anyway? It is a marine plant? Sea cucumber is an animal, not a plant. So, no, this is not a vegetarian dish.
What are sea cucumbers? How are they cooked?
Sea cucumber is known by various names around the world. It is bêche-de-mer in France, bicho do mar in Portugal, namako in Japanese, trepang in Indonesia, gamat in Malaysia, loli in Hawaii and balatan in Filipino (Tagalog).
Shiitake is black mushroom in Chinese cookbooks but I’m calling them shiitake here because that is the term that has become globally known. Besides, “black mushroom” can be so confusing since the color varies from beige to brown to black, and the caps may be speckled or not.
You can always use fresh shiitake for this dish BUT dried ones have a richer flavor, and the soaking water makes a tasty base for the sauce.
Because sea cucumbers have a strong fishy smell, I parboil them them with slices of ginger. Ginger is so good at neutralizing fishy smell.
After the mushrooms and sea cucumbers have been prepped, the braising begins. Garlic, ginger, shallots are sauteed, the mushrooms and sea cucumbers are added, the mushroom soaking water is poured in, and soy sauce, pepper, sugar and oyster sauce are stirred in.
When the mushrooms and sea cucumbers are cooked through, starch is dispersed in reserved mushroom soaking water, poured into the pan and the cooking continues just until the sauce has thickened and cleared.
Braised sea cucumbers and shiitake
- 10 to 12 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 300 grams fresh sea cucumbers
- 6 to 8 slices ginger - divided
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic - peeled and smashed
- 1 to 2 shallots - peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon tapioca starch - or corn starch
- salt - to taste
- ¼ teaspoon sesame seed oil
- 1 head broccoli - broken into florets and blanched in salted water
Prep the shiitake
- Place the shiitake mushrooms in a bowl and pour in warm water. Soak for 15 minutes, flip them over and soak for 15 minutes more (soaking them for as long as three hours won’t hurt).
- Snip off the stems of the shiitake and discard. Cut the caps into halves if large. You want bite-size pieces.
- Strain the liquid in which the mushrooms have soaked. You will need about three cups.
Pre-cook the sea cucumbers
- While the shiitake mushrooms rehydrate, rinse the sea cucumbers and make sure the cavities are clean.
- Drop the sea cucumbers into a pot, add half of the ginger and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover the pot and cook the sea cucumbers with the ginger for 15 to 20 minutes to remove the strong fishy odor.
- Drain the sea cucumbers, rinse under the tap (or plunge in an ice bath) then cut into bite-size pieces.
Braise the sea cucumbers and shiitake
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok or frying pan.
- Saute the remaining ginger, all of the garlic and shallot(s) in the oil until fragrant.
- Turn up the heat. Add the shiitake and sea cucumbers. Stir fry until every piece is coated with oil.
- Reserve a quarter cup of the mushroom liquid and pour the rest into the wok with the sea cucumbers and mushrooms.
- Stir in the soy sauce, pepper, sugar and oyster sauce. Bring to the boil. Set the heat to low, cover the wok and cook the sea cucumbers and mushrooms until tender and the liquid is reduced to less than half.
- Stir the starch in the reserved mushroom liquid.
- Pour the starch solution into the wok. Cook, stirring, until the sauce is thick and clear. Taste. Add salt, as needed.
- Off the heat, drizzle in the sesame seed oil and toss everything to blend.
Assemble the dish
- Arrange the blanched broccoli florets on one side of a serving platter. Ladle your delicious Chinese-style braised sea cucumbers and shiitake mushrooms, with the sauce, on the opposite side.
- Serve at once.