Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/February 1893/The Trepang
By WILLIAM MARSHALL.
THE variety of food substances that men have obtained from the animal and vegetable kingdoms is really wonderful. One might say, "There are many men on the earth, and every one will eat what he can get the most of and at the cheapest rate, and so they have tried and tasted them all." We may grant this, but the most curious fact in the matter is, that the strangest dishes are not foods of the masses of the people, but are rather the costly dainties of the wealthy classes. Nowhere have such rare tastes in food been developed as among the Romans in ancient times and the Chinese. There may be found in the bills of fare of the latter people addled eggs, fat grubs, caterpillars, sharks' fins, rats, dogs, Indian birds' nests, and—the finest of all their delicacies—trepang. What is trepang?
Trepang or tripang is a collective name by which a considerable number of species of most curious sea animals are designated; they are also known as sea rollers, sea cucumbers, in French as cornichons de mer, and scientifically as holothurias. They are among the most sluggish of animals. Only the fixed or stationary animals are slower than the holothurias. They lie like gray, brown, or black leather pipes or cylinders on the bottom of the sea. One might watch them half a day long, if he had nothing better to do, and hardly see them change their position; and they rarely move more than a foot or two in several hours. Their class relatives, the other spiny-skinned animals or echinoderms, are much more active. A sea urchin or a starfish is able to get away from a spot quite nimbly, and the serpent-stars, the most active members of the whole order, are capable of using their long, slender, many-jointed arms as legs, and are as quick and alert as crabs.
One would not suppose, at the first glance, that the sea cucumbers are relatives of the sea urchins and starfishes; for while the skin of the latter is thickly armed with scales of limestone, and they possess a radial structure that is easily distinguished, the appearance of the others is very different. The skin of most of them, including the trepang, is always leathery, compact, and closely adherent to the muscular system. Still, the chalky deposits are not wanting in them, but they are microscopically small, are scattered, and rarely exhibit patterns or knobs. The radial structure is easy to recognize in many of them, but not in others, especially in the deep-sea forms which have only recently become known. But this is a modern variation. The ancient typical structure of all the spiny-skins is radial, and the number of rays is five or a multiple of five. When rays appear in other numerical relations (based on 1, 4, or 6), it may be traced back to a recent variation. While the mouth in the sea urchins and starfishes is on one of the broad sides of the somewhat flattened body—which for this reason is designated as the buccal, or, not very accurately, ventral region—in the sea cucumbers the body extends from the mouth to the other pole, and the animals are not flat, like their relatives, but lengthened out like worms. They, therefore, do not move on the mouth-surface. Thus they are transformed from a radial symmetrical structure into an apparently bilaterally symmetrical, right-and-left structure, but really equally lateral, and, superficially regarded, look like thick, plump worms. Around the mouth is a fringe of tentacles, shield-formed or greatly branched, which serve as organs of touch and groping, or perhaps for breathing. The size of the animals varies greatly; there are forms in the depths of the northern seas which measure but little more than a few centimetres, while tropical species living near the surface are two feet long and more. Their stupidity and slowness of motion correspond with the kind of food they live on. They fill themselves with sand and the detritus of crumbled corals; and, as they do not hunt for food, they need no eyes or organs for rapid motion. In those sediments of the sea are enough organic substances—products of decay, algæ, animals of the lowest species—to keep the slow metabolism in action by their motion. Such inert animals would soon fall a prey to the always hungry robbers of the sea if they had to depend on their skill and dexterity. But they seem to have other means of keeping their enemies away; possibly they have a bad taste to them, or their tough, leatherish skin causes them to appear undesirable morsels to their meat-hunting fellow-denizens of the sea. They have an exceedingly rare peculiarity. When one excites them, handles them roughly, or takes them out of the water, they contract their musculous body convulsively, and vomit themselves out—not only the contents of their stomach or intestines, but the intestines with the contents. But this self-mutilation, apparently so terrible, is not as bad as it seems to be. The intestine is capable of replacing itself, and, after a short season of fasting, our sea cucumber is again restored to its former condition. This is a remarkable phenomenon of a regeneration or restitution process, not yet sufficiently investigated. The holothurias are, like all the spiny-skinned animals, exclusively inhabitants of the sea; at least no fresh-water form is known. In the sea itself, however, they are of universal occurrence. Their representatives are found from pole to pole, and in all depths, from those of only a few metres to those of a thousand metres and more.
A former officer of the Dutch East Indies, M. Lion, who is thoroughly acquainted with the characteristics of that remarkable region, says that there is not an island in the Indian Archipelago near which the trepang is not found; and this is confirmed by the Englishman Jamieson, who marks as the home of the animal all the seas from Sumatra to New Guinea. The trepang can be found everywhere in this region when the surf is not too strong, chiefly at depths of from six to nine metres, on flats covered with coral sand, but not on muddy bottoms. Here they feed, as the English author Guppy has described them to us. An individual of any of the species of trepang from twelve to fifteen inches long will eat half a pound of weathered coral sand a day, loosening it from the surface of the reef. The term eat, however, is hardly the proper one. The animal lets the mass, which contains only a trifling fraction of nutritive matter, pass through its intestines. Fifteen or sixteen of these animals would thus dispose of a ton, or about eighteen cubic feet, of sand in a year. Mr. Guppy speaks of an "organic denudation," of a process of weathering of the coral reef, in course of accomplishment through living causes.
"The Celestial Empire," says Mr. Jamieson, "could not exist without trepang and East Indian birds' nests; and the inquiry for these articles is therefore so brisk that the danger of a glut in the market can hardly be feared. Holothurias are even fished in the Bermudas and the West Indies, and exported, chiefly from Boston, to China. They are probably not sold there as products of the Atlantic ports of the New World, but mixed with real Indian trepangs. For about eighty years also trepangs caught near Ceylon and the Isle of France have been marketed in China, and have sold well; but are ranked—not being well enough prepared for the most delicate Chinese tastes—among the most inferior qualities of the Moluccan supply.
The principal trepang fishers are the Buginese and the inhabitants of the island of Goram. There go out together flotillas of from thirty to forty small, apparently fragile, but really quite seaworthy boats—called proas in the East Indies—with a complement of about a thousand men. The fishermen receive no wages, but are supplied with all the necessaries for the expedition—provisions, etc.—by Dutch and Chinese traders; these then have the right to the whole catch, for a previously determined price, to be paid on delivery, of which each participant in the voyage is entitled to his share. The dangers connected with such an expedition appear not to be small. But the business is a lucrative one. While we can not examine the accounts of the Malays and Chinese, we have evidence of this from another source. An American, Captain Eagleston, sent out five successive expeditions, which brought him 4,467 pikols (a pikol is 61·5 kilogrammes) of trepang, or, at 1,100 to the pikol, 4,913,700 individuals. The enterprise cost $10,337, and returned a clear profit of $67,924.
This fishing is conducted in a rather primitive manner. The most of the "fish" are caught, in shallow water, by spearing the larger ones and diving for the smaller ones; in deeper water an extremely simple drag-net is used, which is fastened to a long handle of bamboo.
A suitable number of trepang having been caught, the fishermen repair to the nearest island to put them up. The trepang are first opened and disemboweled; then the water is pressed out, and they are rubbed within and without with dry lime, which the Malays call tsilumam. They are next dried, either in the sun—which gives an inferior product—or in special crates, beneath which a smoking fire is kept burning; and, lastly, they are packed in bags. According to Mr. Wallace's description, they look like sausages that have been rolled in mud and dragged through a sooty chimney. The kind which I have occasionally tried at our delicatessen shops does not present quite so bad an appearance as that, but it is probably not one of the best qualities.
The dressed trepang are next taken to an appointed place where a kind of fair is held at certain times. The Buginese, who are the most enterprising trepang fishers, have such a place in the little island of Kilwaru, between Ceramlaut and Gessir. It is really only a sand bank, fifty ells long and broad, rising three or four feet above the level of the sea, and surrounded by coral reefs. Other such places are situated on the Aru Islands and at different spots here and there in the Australasian Archipelago. Very many are taken to the chief mart at Macassar; and Java has recently begun to compete actively with this island for the trade.
The market price of this costly dainty depends not on the size of the individuals, but on other qualities which are mysteries to all but connoisseurs. The Chinese dealers and sorters understand them, but the native fishermen pay no attention to them. Crawford mentions thirty different qualities, the best of which, called takker itam, costs about eighty dollars a pikol, while the least valuable, the kuasser, or peku goreng, can be got for a little more than five dollars a pikol. A very good sort comes from the Marianne Islands, and is called guam.
About 1,510 pikols a year of trepangs are sent to China from the Aru Islands, 6,000 from Java, and 8,000 or 9,000 from Macassar. The whole quantity brought to the Celestial Empire every year amounts to 90,000 pikols, but the demand is always ahead of the supply; and yet the trepang is not a people's food in China; for, while the number of individual sea cucumbers consumed there annually rises to 99,000,000, the empire has 380,000,000 inhabitants; so that only every fourth Chinaman could possibly get a trepang a year. The market price in China ranges from about $23 to $135 a pikol. Averaging it at $54 a pikol, we find that the frugal Mongolian sons of heaven yearly spend nearly $9,000,000 for this sea worm.
Not being versed in Chinese cook-books, we can not give directions for serving up the trepang; but, according to Jamieson, the Chinese make strong and palatable soups and various fricassees from them.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from Daheim.