Trepang today

by Blair
Publish date
12 October 2011
Comments (6)

When you see sausages at a butcher, or purchase a barbecued fundraising snag, spare a thought for the sausage-shaped marine animals that formed one of Australia's first export industries. The trade in trepang between Chinese, Macassan and northern Australian Aboriginal people is the focus of the Trepang exhibition at Melbourne Museum which closes on 16 October.

The trade of trepang or sea cucumbers dates back before 1700. The product is known by several names: trepang (Indonesian), bêche-de-mer (French), hai-sum (Chinese) and namako (Japanese). While the live animals are shaped like a sausage, the product that is eaten is usually the dried skin (body wall) or pickled intestines. In Japan they are generally eaten fresh.

sea cucumber packaged for sale Namako (sea cucumber) for sale in a Japanese supermarket.
Image: Hector Garcia
Source: Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) from kirainet

Today, trepang fisheries exist throughout the Indo-Pacific area, including Madagascar, Ecuador, Canada, New Zealand and northern parts of Australia. The products are most often consumed in China, Korea, Japan, and some smaller Indo-Pacific islands such as Samoa and Indonesia.

The Australian trade began with 600 tonnes in the early years – about six million live animals – to 11,000 tonnes in the 1990s. This high demand resulted in over-exploitation in some areas because the animals were easy to collect, slow growing and had low reproductive rates. As a result, today's fisheries target deeper water species and are carefully managed, but some species are still over-fished.

sea cucumber A sea cucumber (Stichopus mollis) in its natural habitat.
Image: Julian Finn
Source: Museum Victoria

So they look like sausages but do they taste like sausages? I asked around. The closest response was from Mel, one of the museum's marine collection managers who has lived in Japan.

"I've only eaten sea urchin [a related echinoderm group] which tasted like mushed-up prawns, but I've heard sea cucumbers taste rubbery."

Nonetheless they are a delicacy for some. Sea cucumbers are rumoured to have anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac properties, although the latter may be based more on the shape and behaviour of the live animal rather than any scientific proof.

Comments (6)

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Chris 12 October, 2011 14:30
I tried 'sea cucumber' many years ago. From memory, it was very salty & very gelatinous. On the plus side, it did come with a very nice Black Bean sauce.
Johnny 13 October, 2011 09:32
Great to hear from you again Blair! As a kid visiting the Great Barrier Reef I recall the locals use to refer to 'sea cucumbers' as 'sea footballs'!
Bliss 13 October, 2011 09:35
I had a great sea cucumber hot & sour soup in Malaysia. It was cut in thin strips longitudinally and presented like a cucumber with its seeds running down the centre. It curled in a spiral in the soup as it cooked so was quite visually appealing. I remember the texture was gelatinous, but firm and a bit chewey in parts (like squid), with a fishy taste. I'd eat it again!
Helen 15 October, 2011 17:01
earlier this year I tried Holothurian (a type of sea cucumber). It was very salty and the texture was not to my taste - a bit slimy. I'm told that the intestines are more tasty than the body wall I sampled. Won't be rushing back for more.
Vera 18 October, 2011 10:08
"Hoi zhem" is mushy and jelly-like after my dad has cooked it for hours and assumes the flavours of the other ingredients in the dish...usually mushrooms, abalone and other weird chinese fungus. Tasty but not sure what the fuss is about. Jelly fish is much more appetising!
Rowena 19 October, 2011 14:20
I ate trepang in Arnhem land in 2007 cooked by a Malaysian man who harvested them locally. It was chewy, like overcooked squid and also like Japanese seaweed. Tasted vaguely like fish. The Arnhem land Aboriginal people harvested it for overseas trade and there was an initiative to get the trade running as an Aboriginal coop. Not sure if the Aboriginal people ate it regulary but it was readily available. Interesting dish but found it hard to eat.
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