Monday, 22 March 2010

When is a cucumber not a cucumber?

Here, at a hotel overlooking Matoya Bay on Ise Shima, the dishes keep coming. Next up is one that I haven’t tried before: dried mushrooms in an egg mousse. Snow, who eats at a slower pace, is rather surprised that I finish it so quickly. “It’s ok. Nothing special,” I tell her. Once she catches me up, she tries a mouthful, seems to retch and drinks water to rid her mouth of the taste. She offers me hers but, well, it’s ok. I’d rather try some of everything.

This particular incident goes unmentioned until the following morning, when I look up the name of the mushroom dish in my electronic dictionary. 'Namako' (海鼠), it turns out, is a 'sea cucumber'. Or a .... 'sea slug'. (I gather that the kanji also mean 'sea mice', so take your pick.)

I now recall having seen one of these creatures in a display cabinet at the Mikimoto Pearl Museum yesterday. It wasn’t presented as a food and, even if it had been, namako looked more like an underwater aubergine. With hindsight, though, it didn’t look especially appetising.

Later, I find a fantastic piece from The Times ( ), which they really should quote on English menus. “The creatures, also called sea cucumbers, or bêches-de-mer in French and namako in Japanese, are one of the items on Asian menus that Westerners often find most difficult to swallow. Known to scientists as holothurians, they resemble bloated brown sausages studded with warts. They scavenge from the sea floor, catching plankton and ocean debris in their tentacles. When alarmed by predators, they react first by firing sticky threads, and then by vomiting their internal organs, which later regrow. As if that wasn’t enough, they breathe through their anuses.“ (Nonetheless, namako are such a prized delicacy that the yakuza are involved in their trade.)

The roads I travel in Japan always seem to lead to haiku, and with sea cucumbers it is no different. It transpires from a Wikipedia search that namako have inspired thousands. Even Basho occasionally took them for his muse. “In English translations, they are usually called "sea slugs"; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "sea slug" originally referred to holothurians (in the 18th century), though biologists now use the name only for the nudibranch molluscs, marine relatives of land slugs. And almost 1,000 Japanese holothurian haiku translated into English appear in the book Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! by Robin D. Gill (Paraverse Press, 2003, ISBN 0-9742618-0-7)”, which is now on my Amazon wish list.

And here is one haiku that you won’t find in that collection (MB, 23.3.2010).....

The sea slug. Not a
turd resting on the sea bed.

(Postscript: I now see that my last line (いただきます - said before meals and, literally, "I humbly receive") has six syllables. Perhaps this can be solved by giving it an English pronunciation and not pronouncing the final 'su' (す)..)

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