They may not look appetizing, especially when dried, but the Chinese love black sea cucumbers—used typically in soups and stews. They're usually bought dried, and rehydrated through boiling and soaking in water for several days. They have a firm, yet gelatinous texture and tend to soak up the flavors of the other ingredients. Not surprisingly, the Chinese believe they have aphrodisiac qualities and help with arthritis.
This delicacy is made by the swift bird's saliva, which produces its unique, gelatinous texture. The Chinese have been using bird's nest to make soup for over 400 years. Today, the Philippines is a main source for bird's nest, which is plucked from the crevices of the limestone cliffs of El Nido, Palawan. The prized find is one that contains red speckles, which come from the vomit of the swifts. Considered among the most expensive ingredients in the world.
Shark's fin continues to be a popular delicacy among the Chinese, despite the clamor of activists to boycott restaurants that use it as an ingredient. Shark's fin soup symbolizes wealth, power, and prestige. While the fins themselves don't add much in terms of flavor, they are praised for their texture, described by The New York Times as "chewy and sinewy." They are also believed to boost sexual potency, prevent heart disease, and lower cholesterol.
Called bao yu in Chinese, abalone is considered a luxury item in China, and is traditionally reserved for special occasions. While the Japanese prefer to eat abalone raw or just slightly steamed, the Chinese like theirs dried, which rehydrates when it is cooked, usually through braising. The Chinese prefer only the adductor muscle, while the Japanese consume even the entrails.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2 2011.
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