A Taste of Jellyfish

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I'm no Andrew Zimmern, but I like to think I'm a slightly adventurous eater, or at least a curious one. And I'm especially curious about foods whose production or harvesting doesn't harm—and might even help—our environment. Invasive species like lionfish, for example. So I was intrigued when the latest issue of our magazine suggested another potentially food source that's in no danger of disappearing: jellyfish.

Staff writer Abigail Tucker wrote a fascinating feature titled "Jellyfish: The Next King of the Sea" (with a slide show on Extreme Jellyfish) for our special 4oth anniversary issue, as part of a "what to expect in terms of science, history, technology and the arts over the next 40 years" theme. Among the issue's environmental predictions—which also include Rosamond Naylor's thoughts on the future of global food security, and a few crops that may help in the fight against hunger—is that our definition of seafood may soon have to change.

While the populations of many marine species are wilting due to overfishing, pollution and other environmental changes, jellyfish are "blooming," often more than humans would prefer. Jellyfish can survive in oceanic "dead zones," and sadly, there's no shortage of those on the horizon.

Despite their venomous reputation, Tucker explains, some types of jellyfish are edible:

"About a dozen jellyfish varieties with firm bells are considered desirable food. Stripped of tentacles and scraped of mucous membranes, jellyfish are typically soaked in brine for several days and then dried. In Japan, they are served in strips with soy sauce and (ironically) vinegar. The Chinese have eaten jellies for 1,000 years (jellyfish salad is a wedding banquet favorite). Lately, in an apparent effort to make lemons into lemonade, the Japanese government has encouraged the development of haute jellyfish cuisine—jellyfish caramels, ice cream and cocktails—and adventuresome European chefs are following suit. Some enthusiasts compare the taste of jellyfish to fresh squid. Pauly says he’s reminded of cucumbers. Others think of salty rubber bands."

Inspired by this, I set out to try some this week. Three colleagues joined me for lunch at a tiny eatery called Jackey Cafe in D.C.'s Chinatown district, agreeing that we would each order things we knew we wanted to eat, but also share some type of jellyfish dish. We debated trying the weekly special posted on the wall, which simply said "Jellyfish Head: $18.95," but after talking things over with a helpful waiter, decided on a smaller investment ($6.95) in the "Cold Shredded Jellyfish" appetizer.

My expectations were as low as possible—I wanted to not gag.

The waiter set down a dish of what looked like a cross between noodles and stir-fried cabbage, then stood watching with a look that suggested his expectations of us were pretty low, too. He raised his eyebrows as we dug in, and said he'd take it right back to the kitchen if we didn't like it.

It had much more texture than the word "jelly" evokes, yet I wouldn't call it chewy—more like wetly crunchy, in the way of those seaweed salads you find at sushi restaurants. It was drenched in a tasty soy-based sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds, with strips of carrot and daikon beneath.

The waiter seemed relieved and surprised when we kept eating.

"I get a lot of people who say they want to try something new, but it turns out they didn't really mean it," he explained. "Next time, try the frog!"

Thanks. I just might do that.

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