Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Beche de mer - dri - sea slugs
So the sea-slugs Tui Macuata referred to as like caterpillars - because of the way they move over the sea floor - are the common Fiji dri. Or beche de mer when they are dried out.
Near Wailevu village I have seen them drying in the sun on tables. I have only tasted them a couple of times - cooked in coconut cream - and really don't fancy them at all. They are still picked up in Fiji and sold to China but not in huge quantities as in the early 19th century when the whole of the Macuata coastline was alive with traders who built smoke-houses in places like Tavea Island. Here is a drawing/engraving of Macuata in 1840.
Wilkes exploration ships came along Macuata about that time and an artist drew one of the smoke-houses and an engraver copied it to make a very fine picture.
The name of the sea-slug is holothurian or sea cucumber and is an echinoderm having a flexible sausage-shaped body, tentacles surrounding the mouth and tube feet.
notes from sn SPC website:
Bêche-de-mer is a French word derived from the Portuguese "Bicho-do-mar" or, in Malay, "trepang". Bêche-de-mer in dried form are used as food by Chinese-speaking peoples. When rehydrated and cooked, the bêche-de-mer is said to impart a delicate flavour to soups. It is sought after for its restorative and aphrodisiac properties, and not as a major item of diet.
In Fiji, only a few varieties of bêche-de-mer are used (mainly dairo and vula), and these are traditionally eaten fresh. By far the largest proportion of Fiji's bêche-de-mer catch is exported in dried form to Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan where it can be retailed at up to US$30 per kilogramme.
Although the bêche-de-mer trade was quite large in the early part of last century, never more than 100 tonnes of dried product per year was exported from Fiji. From 1932 onwards virtually nothing was exported, following the Sino-Japanese war, and trade only started to pick up in the late 1970s.
During the early 1980s the main export market was Hong Kong and only high-quality, high-value species such as sucuwalu (white teat fish) and loaloa (black teat fish) were accepted. Following renewed trade links with the Peoples Republic of China, on the mainland, an enormous new market has opened up. Many other Pacific countries are reporting a great increase in exports of bêche-de-mer, particularly of the lower-value species such as dri (blackfish).
Very little is known about the biology and ecology of tropical holothurians. A certain amount of work has been done in Japan on spawning the temperate sea-cucumbers, but this is not applicable to Fiji conditions. From work done in New Caledonia by ORSTOM, we do know that blackfish have a winter breeding season and that they grow to around three inches in length during the first six months, reaching full size in two years.
Other species have different characteristics of course. For example loaloa (black teatfish) has a summer spawning season, and driloli (lollyfish) may reach full size in just over a year.
Different varieties have different commercial values. In general, the thicker-bodied species are more valuable. They are slower growing, less prone to shrinkage on drying, and less prone to spoilage. Soft bodied lollyfish are of little use to anyone, but the red juice that they exude when rubbed between the hands has been used traditionally for. stunning fish.