Dear Mr. Gold:
Any recomendations for the best place to try sea cucumber? Either Asian and non-Asian preparations would be fine. I was watching the Bitman/Batali show "Spain... On The Road Again" and the grilled sea cucumber they were eating looked amazing.
--MLC, Los Angeles
Has there ever been a non-Asian restaurant in Los Angeles that served sea cucumber? The first Chinatown place I remember serving the creature, the then-Hunan Chinese Friends, did it no favors when it translated the unlovely invertebrate as "sea slug.'' The French call them beche-de-mer, but don't eat many of them. The Japanese call them something that translates as "sea rats,'' and do.
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Sea cucumbers travel in vast herds across deep ocean floors, they breathe through their anuses, and when attacked, some of them defend themselves by farting out sections of their poisonous, sticky lungs. The particular, ganky texture expressed by the title ingredient in bird's nest soup is supposed to come from the fondness of the swallows in question for impaling and sucking the mucus from sea cucumbers.
You would think that the slippery, crunchy, strongly iodine-tinged raw sea cucumber would have somehow slipped into the 1980's fusion chef's palette, perhaps as part of a salad at La Toque or Le Petit Chaya, but it doesn't seem to have. Korean sushi bars do often serve raw sea cucumber, usually slivered and served in a kind of spicy bean sauce--I have especially enjoyed the version served at Bu San, on Western.
But most of the preparations locally are made with dried sea cucumbers in Chinese restaurants, and my favorite of those preparations lately has been the soft, supple braised sea cucumber with shrimp eggs at the Eastern Chinese standby Chang's Garden in Arcadia. If Henry Chang can make sea cucumber taste this good, just imagine what he does with pork belly.
Chang's Garden: 627 W Duarte Rd., Arcadia; (626) 445-0606.