The creature and the food product are commonly known as bêche-de-mer (literally “sea-spade”) in French, trepang (or trīpang) in Indonesian, namako in Japanese, and balatan in Tagalog. In Malay, it is known as the gamat.
Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy.
Sea cucumbers destined for food are traditionally harvested by hand from small watercraft, a process anglicised into “trepanging” (after the Indonesian noun trepang). They are dried for preservation, and must be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in Chinese cuisine soups or stews.
Many commercially important species of sea cucumber are harvested and dried for export for use in Chinese cuisine as hoi sam. Some of the more commonly found species in markets include:
- Holothuria scabra (sandfish)
- Holothuria spinifera (brown sandfish)
- Holothuria fuscogilva (bat susu, white teatfish)
- Actinopyga mauritiana (spiny sea cucumber)
- Stichius japonicus
- Parastichopus californicus (giant California sea cucumber)
- Thelenota ananas (prickly redfish)
- Acaudina molpadioides
Western Australia has sea cucumber fisheries from Exmouth to the border of the Northern Territory; almost all of the catch is sandfish (Holothuria scabra). The fishing of the various species known as bêche-de-mer is regulated by state and federal legislation.
Five other species are targeted in the state’s bêche-de-mer harvest, these are Holothuria noblis (white teatfish), Holothuria whitmaei (black fish), Thelenota ananas (prickly redfish), Actinopyga echninitis (deep-water redfish), and Holothuria atra (lolly fish).
In the far north of Queensland, Australia, sea cucumber are harvested from the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea. Targeted species include Holothuria noblis (white teatfish), Holothuria whitmaei (black teatfish) and H. scabra (sand fish). Divers are supplied air via hose or “hookah” from the surface and collect their catch by hand, diving to depths of up to 40 m.
The largest American species is Holothuria floridana, which abounds just below low-water mark on the Florida reefs. There are plans to harvest this species for the sea cucumber market.
The trade in trepang, between Macassans seafarers and the aborigines of Arnhem Land, to supply the markets of Southern China is the first recorded example of trade between the inhabitants of the Australian continent and their Asian neighbours.
The dried form accounts for 95% of the sea cucumber traded annually in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Korea, and Japan.
In Japan, sea cucumber is also eaten raw, as sashimi or sunomono, and its intestine is also eaten as konowata, which is salted and fermented food (one of a variety of shiokara). The dried ovary of sea cucumber is also eaten, which is called konoko (このこ) or kuchiko (くちこ).
Both a fresh form and a dried form are used for cooking. The taste is described as “tasteless and bland”. Individually, the dried form is also used for traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese folk belief attributes male sexual health and aphrodisiac qualities to the sea cucumber, as it physically resembles a phallus, and uses a defence mechanism similar to ejaculation as it stiffens and squirts a jet of water at the aggressor. It is also considered a restorative for tendonitis and arthritis.