Slippery When Braised. Sea Cucumber Battle. Hong Kong Palace Vs. New Capital Seafood.
HONG KONG PALACE. Rowland Heights, CA. Sea Cucumber with Black Mushroom and Green Mustard.
The first slick wedge of sea cucumber squirted off of my chopstick, flopped onto our table and landed next to the tea pot. The next piece of sea cucumber I attempted to pick up shot up and followed a trajectory that ended in between my wife's cleavage. I was too hungry to laugh. She was too hungry to smack me. So the next logical step was to reach down into her top, while my fellow patrons around me pretended not to notice, and try to recover one of the most slippery foods on the planet. After I secured it, I immediately popped this gravy soaked echinoderm into my mouth for fear of having it slip from my grasp again and end up on the lap of some Triad thug. However, even in my mouth it managed to slide around like a hydroplaning Hot Wheel. At last I got a good grip on it and bit. Oddly enough, as I took the bite and chewed past the sea cucumber’s glossy exterior, I was greeted unexpectedly by an al dente pierce. In a weird way, this sea cucumber was sort of crunchy like…a regular cucumber. Imagine that? But once I sunk my teeth into one part of the sea cucumber, the rest of it surrendered and was easily minced in my mouth.
Sea cucumber is like a ghost. It seems substantial but after a few bites it just disappears and gives very little in flavor and leaves even less in aftertaste. It’s as if you never ate anything, like elBulli foam. But if you ruminate long and hard enough, you will detect the faintest of an ocean breeze and the salty mist from breaking waves. But that’s about all. As far as sea cucumber is concerned, it’s not about the flavor. It’s really about the texture. If you’re a culinary kinkmeister who’s into the slippery and slimy, open up and say “Ahhh” because this dish is for you.
Contrary to its moniker, sea cucumber is not a vegetable from the sea (but I won’t argue with Jessica Simpson if she thinks it is. Schwing!). Sea cucumber is actually a sea creature related to the sea star. When not chopped up and braised, it is cylindrical, sort of sausage-like, and creeps along the ocean floor to bottom feed. Sea cucumber is also thought to have medicinal value and is used by some for treating arthritis. Preparation of sea cucumber is quite time consuming due to the fact that it is sold dried and must be rehydrated in cold water for roughly 12 hours before it is braised for another two hours. Typically it is served nestling with black mushrooms or a green leafy vegetable or both.
The way they do braised sea cucumber at Hong Kong Palace in Rowland Heights, California, is by balancing it out with two very strong flavors, the sea cucumber itself acting as a fulcrum. The first of the two supporting ingredients is black mushroom. These particular black mushrooms were mouth-watering, meaty orbs packed with powerfully earthy and perfumey flavors. Really good. In fact, the best black mushrooms I’ve ever experienced. I could eat them until the Year of the Dog arrives. The Yin to the mushroom’s Yang is the mustard greens. This leafy green vegetable is as bitter as a bad love affair and as spicy as a bad woman. All combined in a standard brown sauce, Hong Kong Palace’s harmonious “sea cucumber with black mushroom and mustard green” is a complete flavor tour for every part of the tongue. Unfortunately, the star of the show, sea cucumber, is upstaged overwhelmingly by its co-stars. Still, it's a fantastic dish.
But with sea cucumber, there’s always more to tell.
NEW CAPITAL SEAFOOD. San Gabriel, CA. Braised Sea Cucumber.
Let’s flashback a couple months ago when my dinner party ordered braised sea cucumber at the New Capital Seafood Restaurant in San Gabriel. New Capital's interpretation of sea cucumber was presented on a bed of baby bok choy. In this case, I had almost an alternate universe experience when compared to Hong Kong Palace. At New Capital, the vegetable is standard and forgettable but the sea cucumber steps it up. The sea cucumber at New Capital might have been loved and coddled a little more, maybe for Christmas it even got the Barbie Dream House as opposed to Barbie’s Coin-Op Laundry play set. Whatever the reason, New Capital’s sea cucumber is delicate and lush. Velvety. It’s so much more pleasurable to sink one’s teeth into. The buttery feel of this dish makes it taste better because it holds flavor. The cooks braised the sea cucumber to the point of breaking it down enough to have the rich, sweet and salty deep brown sauce penetrate its pores. It’s still a slippery sucker though, so be on alert for flying slabs of sea cucumber.
The solution? Put together the best aspects of these two seafood houses' braised sea cucumber plates – Hong Kong Palace’s chunky black mushrooms and intoxicating mustard greens with New Capital’s sinfully luscious sea cucumber – and you will have the perfect sea cucumber dish. Yin and Yang. But if you want this perfect version of sea cucumber, you’re gonna have to drive 20 miles between the two restaurants to get it. Then again, sometimes you'll just have to go Yang-less.