Sea cucumbers – back to nature cures

sea cucumber © Adrian Cheah

Marine life in Malaysian waters is full of many natural wonders. Among them is the humble sea cucumber. Locally, it is known as 'gamat' in Malay and 'hai som' in Hokkien. It is scientifically called holothurians, a class of the phylum echinodermata.

sea cucumber
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Sea cucumbers have elongated tubular bodies that are rubbery and without bony skeletons. These ancient creatures, found in both tropical and temperate oceans, come in a variety of colours and range anywhere from less than an inch to over six feet in length. There are over a thousand species worldwide. Some resemble worms and burrow in ocean floor sediments. Others filter feed using an array of retractable tentacles used to trap organic debris and tiny marine organisms.

Today, scientists and engineers have placed the humble sea cucumber under the microscope to take a closer look at its unique qualities. Its properties have led to the discovery of scientific evidences that back traditional remedies used by the forefathers of this land.

A natural wonder packed with goodness

Eric Chong, a close friend of mine, once told an interesting tale about the survival instinct of sea cucumbers. A fisherman once stepped on a 'gamat' on his way to his camp on the beach. The animal secreted a kind of sticky milk-like fluid which glued on to his hairy legs so effectively that the only solution to removed it was to shave the leg area clean.

He then took revenge by hacking all the sea cucumbers around him with his rusty old 'parang' (machete). After the massacre, he went about his daily business. But on returning to the scene, he was amazed to find his victims whole again. All their wounds had healed and those that were cut right through had fused back leaving no traces of lacerations.

Although this account may sound a absurd, there is however some truth to it. One of the more interesting features about the sea cucumber is its self-defence mechanism known as 'auto evisceration'. If sufficiently threatened, the animal rids itself of its gut area. Far from being a bizarre form of aquatic suicide, the animal quickly grows a new digestive track to replace the old one.

Sea cucumbers have been around for over 500 million years. They must have good survival mechanism that is quite adept at fighting inflammation and infection.

After a decade of research, local universities in Malaysia and Japan have discovered the active substance from the sea cucumber that contains a cell growth factor which has the ability to accelerate regeneration of biological cells, bone and collagen, and rejuvenate skin.

Sea cucumber is also packed with natural nutrients like protein, vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium and zinc.

sea cucumber products © Adrian Cheah

There are already pharmaceutical companies that are adding this unique ingredient from the sea cucumber into an array manufacture products, spawning from emulsion, jellies, gel, massage cream, and liniment oil to shampoo, body shampoo, toothpaste, juice, drinks and skincare products.

Natural examples of brilliant engineering

“The sea cucumber has the peculiar ability to vary its stiffness at will. It can make itself floppy or stiff, as the occasion demands. Under stress it can become so floppy that it breaks up when handled.

Research has shown that the sea cucumber is made like fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) –commonly known as ‘fibreglass’– except that the ‘plastic’ is the protein collagen, and the fibres are of course not glass and are only 0.2 millionths of a metre (eight millionths of an inch) long. The sea cucumber changes its stiffness by rapidly changing the chemical property of the collagen in such a way that its sheer strength is altered.

Engineers are now working on resins for carbon fibre-reinforced structures which can mimic the sea cucumber’s ability. Such a material may be very useful in designing an aircraft wing that could be caused to change its shape rather than having to rely on ailerons and flaps for control.”

– Professional Engineering, 23 July 1997, p. 36.

Exotic medicine from the ocean floor

sea cucumber products © Adrian Cheah

The healing property of the sea cucumber is not something new to locals. The Malay community has long used 'air gamat' and 'minyak gamat' as a remedy for cuts, wounds and inflammation (air means water and minyak means oil).

There are two ways of processing the sea cucumber. One is to get the pure fluid and the other is to mix it with coconut oil and secret plant extracts. In both processes, the sea cucumber is placed into a huge barrel which is cooked over a slow fire for days. In the first process, no ingredients are added. Thus, you have the pure form of fluid which is called 'air gamat'.

In the second process, coconut oil and secret plant extracts are periodically added throughout the three days. After the third day, you are left with an oil-based substance known as 'minyak gamat'. The interesting thing about the whole cooking process is that you can dip your hand into the boiling oil and escape unharmed because the boiling temperature is lower!

The processed sea cucumber is marketed in two bottles. The pure type or 'air gamat' can be ingested. It is used to cure internal ailments such as peptic ulcers, duodenal ulcers, bleeding piles and stomach aches. The mixed kind or 'minyak gamat' is for external application. It is used to quicken the healing process of toothaches, cuts or wounds.

sea cucumber © Adrian Cheah

These traditional remedies are available at the Lorong Kulit thieves’ market on weekends. Medicine peddlers at Lorong Kulit are a dime a dozen. They put on very persuasive performances as they mesmerise their audiences with superb oratorical skills and theatrics. Thus, it is quite difficult to differentiate those who are out to make a quick buck from the real ones. However, backed with scientific research, we now know that 'air' or 'minyak' gamat can really do some of the things promised by these street medicine men.

Gamat medicine can also be easily obtained in Langkawi as it is popular and is available throughout the island.

A popular Chinese delicacy

sea cucumber © Adrian Cheah

Sea cucumber is also a very sought-after ingredient in Chinese cooking. In Penang, the Hokkiens call it hai som, which translates roughly as "ginseng of the sea". The Chinese believe that hai som is a nutritious aphrodisiac.

Local sundry shops and Chinese medicine halls offer dried versions in various grades. I remember my mum soaking the dried sea cucumbers for days before cooking. She cautioned to always remove the skin of the sea cucumber to avoid its bitter taste and to clean it thoroughly to get rid of the fishy smell that could alter the flavour of the dish.

sea cucumber © Adrian Cheah

If you are in a hurry and would like to shorten the preparation time, you might want to head for the wet markets where the soaked version is ready for cooking after cleaning.

The sea cucumber is often favoured by the Chinese as a festive dish especially during Chinese New Year and festive dinners. Like tofu (bean curd), it is flavourless but absorbs and accentuates the flavours of the ingredients it is cooked with.

sea cucumber cuisine © Adrian Cheah

Sea cucumber can be prepared in a variety of cooking methods ranging from steaming and sautéing to stir-frying and stewing. The succulent gelatinous texture of the sea cucumber infused with flavourful stock in every bite is what makes this unique ingredient a much sought-after delicacy.

You can also make a delicious dessert by cooking sea cucumber with snow fungus, red dates, dried longan and lotus seed in ginger syrup. Put in some pandan leaves to infuse a sweet aroma into the dessert.

Written and photographed © Adrian Cheah
Updated 5 March 2019