This is a video of a magnificent dried sea cucumber after two days of soaking and slow-cooking. As you can see, it has a lazy, springy, sticky texture. When I brought it home, dry and rock-hard like a fossil, it had an unpleasant fishy smell (like Bombay Duck, if anyone can remember that). But after the requisite soaking and simmering, it had virtually no aroma or flavour: it had been reduced to pure, glorious texture – which meant it was ready to be cooked. Isn’t it amazing?
One of the great barriers to outsiders’ appreciation of Chinese food is the Chinese love of textures that others consider revolting, as I’ve written before: the slimy, slithery, bouncy and rubbery; the wet crispness of gristle; the brisk snappiness of goose intestines; the sticky voluptuousness of that reconstituted dried sea cucucmber. This was the subject of a talk I gave as part of a London Gastronomy Seminar last week, following an excellent exposition by French psychologist Dominique Valentin on the cultural influence on food choices.
We ended the evening with a tutored tasting of some classic ‘texture foods’ (pictured right): naked, undressed jellyfish in all its crisp slitheriness, a terrine of pressed pig’s ear, layered with thin sheets of crunchy cartilage; sticky ox tendons in a spicy sauce; and then, for each guest, a duck’s tongue, which is a perfect example of a Chinese delicacy with a ‘high grapple factor’, which is to say one that requires a detailed, concentrated engagement of tongue and teeth to separate out the bouncy flesh and slender spikes of cartilage. We also had a comparative tasting of fermented tofu and Stilton, to highlight the distinction made by some Chinese friends of mine between what they found the clean, rapidly-dispersing stinkiness of fermented tofu, and the greasy, clingy, mouth-coating stinkiness of cheese.
It gave me great pleasure to see a whole roomful of people eating (in most cases) their first duck tongue, in the intentional pursuit of pleasure. (I’ve received quite a number of emails from readers of my book ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ who say that they’ve tried eating ‘rubbery things’ with a completely different, open-minded attitude after reading the chapter ‘The Rubber Factor’, which attempts to explain why the Chinese enjoy eating flavourless foods with interesting textures.)