Three kinds of sea cucumbers, ranging in price from $25 to $110 per pound
There’s nothing vegetarian about a sea cucumber, and, though you can cut it up and use it in a salad, it isn’t green and doesn’t crunch. Also known as sea slug (or less felicitously as sea rat), the creatures are shell-less jelly-like gastropods about the size of a finger. Usually sold in dried form, they are quite expensive; in fact they are considered a luxury ingredient in Chinese restaurants.
At Yi Lan Halal, a Northern Chinese restaurant in Flushing, sea cucumber is used in a soup with swatches of omelet.
Another name is ginseng of the sea, and the animals are purported to have healthful effects, especially where male potency is concerned. But they are a desirable ingredient on their own, possessing a distinct oceanic flavor that marries well with strong-tasting ingredients like chiles, fish sauce, and garlic. The drawback is that dried specimens must be soaked for days before use. In area Chinatowns, prices run as high as $110 per pound, and several varieties from various parts of the Pacific are sold, each with its subtly distinct properties.
In Manhattan’s Chinatown, a store called Chung Chou City 1, Inc. (218-220 Grand Street, 212-274-9338) specializes in sea cucumbers. Nine or 10 types are available, set out on the sidewalk in boxes for your examination. None looks much like a cucumber; but they are said to bear a passing resemblance when alive and crawling across the floor of the ocean.
The largest and ugliest specimens seem to command the highest prices.
This place has the city’s best collection of dried sea rats. Take a pocketful home and begin soaking.