Deep-fried sea cucumber and chips
Deep-fried sea cucumber and chips Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Matthias Merges (Yusho)

The Challenger: Ryan Poli (Tavernita)

The Ingredient: Sea cucumber

“You either love sea cucumber or you hate it,” Matthias Merges said. He used a pair of chopsticks to poke at one, imported live from a Tokyo fish market, and it moved a little in response. When he pulled the chopsticks away, thick strings of brown slime came away with them. The sea cucumbers in front of him, from the Kyushu region of Japan, were an opalescent blue-gray with brown and cream spots and swirls vaguely reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

Sea cucumbers are echinoderms, marine animals in the same phylum as sea urchins, starfish, and sand dollars. Named for their resemblance to cucumbers of the vegetable variety, they can essentially liquefy their bodies thanks to the catch collagen that makes up their body wall, which allows them to stiffen or soften at will. They’re eaten all over the world, but are most popular in Asia, where they’re consumed both raw and cooked.

Merges compares their texture to chicken cartilage, crunchy and a little slimy, warning that it’s not for everyone. “It’s a very primitive kind of taste and texture,” he said.

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Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

He prepared them two ways, making both sea cucumber chips and tempura-fried sea cucumbers. For the first, he blanched the echinoderms to firm them up before slicing into them (which allowed their gooey insides to spill out), cleaning them out, and cutting them into pieces, which he dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. The chips were made by cooking down sea cucumbers with Japanese rice, pureeing the stock, and then dehydrating it. Merges then deep-fried them until they puffed up and seasoned them with nori powder and togarashi, a chile-based Japanese spice.

Credit: Julia Thiel

He served the two preparations with ponzu sauce and a chile sauce made with tobanjan (fermented chile paste)—and a whiskey cocktail. “I think it’s an acquired taste,” Merges said after tasting it. “It’s similar to an oyster in flavor . . . you get that kind of salinity and sea taste.

“And it’s great with rye whiskey.”

Who’s next:

Dave Beran of Next, working with cashew fruit, which Merges says is difficult to find in the U.S. He had it for the first time in Sao Paolo, Brazil, roasted and served with foie gras. “It’s a very particular fruit with a delicious, very lush taste,” he said. “It’s starchy in a way, but very rich and nectaresque. It’s tasty stuff.”