Sea Cucumbers: The Ocean Delicacy You Should Know

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Cucumbers from the sea may bear some visual resemblance to the land-grown variety. After all, both have a somewhat elongated cylindrical shape that tapers at each end. However, the similar form of the sea cucumber and land cucumber is where the commonalities end: the sea cucumber is not a cucumber at all, but rather an animal that is comprised of almost 2,000 species (via World Register of Marine Species). The sea cucumber is a marine invertebrate that lives on the seafloor (per Live Science). This small sea creature feeds on algae and even tinier marine creatures, and their excrement is beneficial to coral reef systems.

Sea cucumbers are considered a culinary delicacy in some cultures, so much so that in 2018 one man was fined one million dollars for smuggling a staggering $17 million dollars worth of the sea treat from New Mexico to Asia. Has your interest been piqued in this sea-dwelling delicacy? Here's everything you need to know about the sea cucumber.

Health benefits of sea cucumber

There are a host of health benefits to be reaped from consuming this oceanic delicacy. According to Healthline, in traditional Chinese medicine, sea cucumber is used to treat conditions like cancer, frequent urination, arthritis, and even impotence.

As a food, sea cucumbers also bring a lot of nutritional benefits to the table: it's rich in vitamin A, B2, B3, and antioxidants, has antimicrobial and cancer-fighting properties, and can even reduce blood pressure (per Healthline). For those who want to add healthy proteins to their meals, sea cucumbers are a good choice as they are chock full of protein. Another added bonus: sea cucumbers contain a high level of compounds that are similar to chondroitin sulfate, which is a supplement that can help those with ailments like osteoarthritis or other joint issues (per Healthline).

Where to buy sea cucumbers and their price

The plant variety of cucumber is cheap, averaging about $3 a kilogram, according to one report by Business Insider, making it an accessible and healthy food. The sea cucumber? The price for this sea creature can cost as much as a jaw-dropping $3,000 per kilogram, making the sea cucumber a luxurious delicacy. In Asia especially, sea cucumbers have always been a prized dish for the wealthy elite, but in the 1980s demand for sea cucumbers skyrocketed alongside the expanding middle class in China (per Business Insider).

One pound of dried, wild-caught Atlantic Black pin sea cucumber will set you back over $200 on Amazon, but the spikier varieties of sea cucumber can be even more expensive. If you favor your sea cucumbers fresh, they're available at Seafood Wholesale Export for close to $4,000 per ton. A word of warning, however: sea cucumbers may be in danger of overfishing. One report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that "sea cucumber populations in 12 of 30 countries in Africa and the Indian Ocean region [appear] to be overexploited or fully exploited" (via Africa Defense Forum).

Types of sea cucumber and how to cook them

According to the Michelin Guide, the first recorded documentation of sea cucumber consumption was during China's Ming dynasty. It was called "sea ginseng" and was thought to be incredibly healthy, similar to the land-grown plant cucumber (via Michelin Guide). According to the Michelin Guide, there are three primary types of sea cucumber that are consumed: the prickly sea cucumber (the most expensive kind), the bald sea cucumber, and the white teat sea cucumber, which has white dots on its skin.

Dried sea cucumber needs to be soaked and restored in water, for up to two days, and should avoid contact with any oil (via Sin Ocean PTE). Before you cook them, you'll have to clean them by removing the outer skin, which will allow them to fully soak. Then, you can boil them for about 20 minutes (per Sin Ocean PTE). Afterward, be sure to remove interior organs, and if the sea cucumber is still hard, just keep boiling it until it is soft.

Sea cucumbers are mild in taste, so they are best paired with stronger flavors. They can be braised, added to porridges, soups, or even served in cold salads.