Konowata: cured sea cucumber entrails

I still remember the first time I saw and held a sea cucumber. These preternaturally squishy, elongated, leathery life forms evoke a combination of repulsion and wonder.

Sea cucumbers are of the genus holothuroidea, and thus are sometimes called holothurians; other names include beche-de-mer and trepang. These bottom dwellers are found across the Pacific Ocean, their home of 400 million years, in an amazing 1400 varieties: brilliantly colored or dull gray, smooth or spiked. (They are one of the six species in the phylum Echinodermata, or echinoderms, which also includes starfish and sea urchins.)

For those interested in neurobiology, I note that the sea cucumber has no brain whatsoever, not even the start of a ganglia. I guess it doesn’t need a brain since it has other ways to satisfy all its basic needs: to reproduce, for instance, it just shoots eggs and sperm out into the water. What intelligence it has is built into its body parts. For instance, it defends itself by ejecting certain body parts from its anus, whereupon they grow long and sticky, entangling the poor crab who thought he had found his dinner.

A particularly succulent part of the sea cucumber is its intestines. The Pacific Islanders have developed a technique for plucking out them out—squeezing a finger into the underside usually does the trick—taking advantage of the fact that the animal auto-eviscerates in response to rough handling, a defensive mechanism against predators. They then throw the animal back in the ocean where, miraculously, it regenerates its own intestines overnight or within a few days (all echinoderms can do this). The Islanders prefer the guts of the curryfish variety of sea cucumber, S. variegatus, which they eat fresh, cooked, or pickled in lime juice.

In Japan, the marine beasts, known as namako, genus Stichopus japonicus, are valued for their chewy, almost tasteless flesh (body wall), often eaten as sunomono (in vinegar sauce)—but then Japan has a distinguished history of preferring foods for their texture, not taste, tofu being the obvious example, fugu (globefish) another. Records dating back to the 1600s record the export from Japan of sea cucumber flesh, mainly to China, where it plays a key role in the cuisine.

But the Japanese also did not overlook the entrails, which they extract, salt, and cure (see picture). The result: konowata (æµ·é¼ è…¸), considered one of the three major chinmi (delicacies) of Japan.

Specifically, the Japanese take sea cucumbers, extract the visceral mass (alimentary canal and reproductive organs) wash it, drain it in a bamboo basket, salt it, then ferment it for one week. The result is marketed in bottles that for top-class Hokkaido product can be surprisingly expensive, up to $50, although our sushi chef told us he got some konowata from Aichi Prefecture, said to be the top producer at present, which cost only $20, even with konoko dried sea cucumber ovaries mixed in. These ovaries, a delicacy in themselves, are also known as hoshiko, kuchiko, or bachiko.

So what does konowata taste like, anyway? Whether or not you believe in qualia, describing the taste of konowata is simple: it’s the taste of the sea, or more specifically, the taste of the iso. Iso is a uniquely Japanese concept, not present in English. It’s often translated as beach or seashore, but actually it’s that area of a rocky shore where land meets sea: the surf washing in and out over the rocks, crabs and tiny fish and water insects darting around and under them. Think of the smell of the iso and you have described the taste of konowata precisely.

12 Responses to “Konowata: cured sea cucumber entrails”

  1. robin d. gill Says:

    The photo is not konowata, which is closer to shiokara (squid entrails), gloppy and in a jar, but the dried ovaries—- i forget how many are in each bachi = plectrum (as of a shamisen) = shaped piece you see drying. Maybe a dozen maybe a hundred.

    For more info, see my book, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!

  2. Lin Says:

    I wanted to eat sea cucumber in order to ease a nagging ache in a joint. The flavor of iso maybe highly desired, but I prefer less of it. If you are interested in making the sea cucumber taste less like iso, try blanching it in a gallon of boiling water with a quarter pound of sliced ginger and a large stalk of leek. Then scoop the sea cucumber out of the pot and immediately dunk it in ice water. Then clean it with kosher salt. The result is precious gelatin.

  3. hamid Says:

    sell dried seacucumber

  4. Boo Nguyen Says:

    We see you via internet, and we wonder whether you have imported Sea Cucumber from outside. If you are interested in and wanna know further information, contact us through this email address.
    Many thanks and Best regards.

  5. mohamed Says:

    plw send me via email methode of the boiling & cleaning the sea cucumber

  6. Georgia Fly Fishing Says:

    I have had it and I have to say with regards to it’s price, people swear by it. I have heard that it prevents diseases and it’s use is comparable to shark fin soup. Based on that, I think that if a restaurant filled to capacity believes in it, so will I. As for the taste itself, it’s actually quite amazing with lemon. It’s not so slippery in the mouth and it’s subtle yet sweet taste doesn’t resonate after consuming it. I tend to like it: Not to add that it is quite impressive if you order it not only for yourself, but for your date.

  7. Sea cucumbers - expunge! « My Name Is Legion Says:

    […] importantly for us, the sea cucumber entrails are delicious. So much for that defense mechanism. They can’t use their wits to get away either, because […]

  8. mohamed Says:

    Dears sir
    i’am selling dried sea cucumber my email:
    plz send me via email methode o boiling &cleaning fresh sea cucumber

  9. David McRae Says:

    I live on the west coast of Canada and I am looking for a recipe for sea cuecumber intestine. I was also wondering are there different types of preserving the entrails for later consumption?
    Thanks for any help

  10. David McRae Says:

    how to do it, cured sea cuecumber entrails The gonads to be specific. Thanks for any information on this topic

  11. Annie Chen Says:

    I am wholesaler of dried sea cucumber based in Singapore. Any one wants to buy dried sea cucumber or its intestines, please contact me at +6592768499 or anniechen1693@gmail.com.

  12. Juan Says:

    Dear sir, I’m also interested in different ways of preserving the sea cucumber intestines and konowata.

    Thanks for the help 🙂

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