If you feel that this has been a very hot summer then you’re right. In fact this last twelve-month period is the warmest ever recorded in the U.S. according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To escape the heat of July and August, residents of overcrowded cities throughout the Northern hemisphere abandon their homes and flock to the nearest beach resorts. Over the last several years something else has been gathering to welcome the tourists: the jellyfish.
Much media attention has been given lately to the sometimes-disastrous increases in jellyfish population, known as “blooms.” In October of 2009 a 10-ton fishing trawler sank when it tried to haul in a net full of giant jellyfish in an effort to clear the sea of these creatures. In June of 2010 a nuclear power plant in Torness, Scotland was forced to shut down because of jellyfish clogging its cooling system. Last summer an invasion of moon jellyfish prompted Southern Florida beaches to post dangerous warnings to swimmers.
Much of this media coverage blames global warming and overfishing of finfish for these sudden jellyfish blooms. When I contacted Dr. Robert Condon, senior marine scientist at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, he told me that these sensational media accusations may be premature. He said that “there is much debate on the issue of whether jellyfish are increasing or not.” Currently there is just not enough data to form any conclusion. But Lucas Brotz, a doctoral candidate at University of British Columbia specializing in jellyfish research, told me, “even with all the uncertainty, it does appear that coastal locations most impacted by humans are the same places showing increasing jellyfish populations.” Three years ago Dr. Condon and other marine scientists around the world formed a global working group to collect relevant data to explain the blooms.
So how does this issue impact jellyfish as a food source? People in some Asian countries consume jellyfish as delicacies and the Chinese are especially fond of them. But is edible jellyfish population sustainable? Should we be worried about consuming them? According to Professor Shin-Ichi Uye of Hiroshima University the most popularly harvested jellyfish is the sand jellyfish (Rhopilema esculentum) and they are heavily harvested in Asia. However Chinese marine hatcheries are beginning to grow jellyfish larvae and release them into the coastal waters of China. Still, Brotz cautioned that the success of this practice is being debated. For now though Dr. Condon and Professor Uye are comfortable in recommending continued consumption of these jellyfish.
Mrs. Condon Enjoying a Dish of Jellyfish
The benefits of eating jellyfish are also rather controversial. Dr. Condon believes they are a healthy food choice containing 5% fat and 80% protein. Brotz on the other hand maintained that the protein content is rather low and he also identified aluminum residue, which contaminates jellyfish during processing, as a health concern. Some Asian research suggests that consuming jellyfish collagen, which is the main protein in jellyfish, can benefit people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. But no formal scientific conclusion has yet been made.
Jellyfish is rarely absent in celebratory Chinese banquet event, be it a wedding, birthday or business banquet. I regularly serve jellyfish at my Chinese banquets. Jellyfish salad, often part of the first course, is made from the bell (海蜇皮). The thin round sheet is cut into strips resembling noodles and combined with cucumbers or other crunchy vegetables before being dressed in a fragrant garlic, black vinegar and sesame oil sauce. Another part of the jellyfish used to make cold dishes is the oral arms, known in Chinese as “jellyfish head” (海蜇頭). These coral shaped arms sit below the bell between the mouth and the tentacles. The oral arms are often sliced thinly and served icy cold with a side of black vinegar for dipping.
If you’ve not tried eating jellyfish then let me suggest the following recipe made with the jellyfish bell combined with wood ear mushroom and cucumber. You will find that the jellyfish will take on the delicious flavor of the dressing and contribute a crunchy texture to the dish. It will not be slimy or slippery, as you might imagine.
Jellyfish and Wood Ear Salad (木耳拌海蜇絲)
- 12 oz. jellyfish (海蜇皮)
- 1/4 oz. dried wood ear mushroom reconstituted in cold water and torn into bite size pieces
- 3 oz. cucumber seeds removed and julienned
- scallion and cilantro minced for garnish
- 1 teaspoon garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon Chingkiang black vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
Jellyfish, whether the bell or the oral arm, are salted and dried for storage before being sold in the market. So it is important to soak the jellyfish in clean water to remove the salt. Soak the jellyfish in about three cups of water and refrigerate for six hours. Drain and replace the water after two hours and again after four hours.
Drain the jellyfish and squeeze out as much of the water as possible. Slice the jellyfish into strips about 1/4 inch wide. In a pot or a wok heat enough water to submerge them. Bring the water to a boil and turn the heat off. Let the water cool for about two minutes or until the temperature reaches about 190 degree F. Put the jellyfish noodles in a spider skimmer and submerge the jellyfish in the hot water. Use a pair of chopsticks or large spoon to stir the jellyfish until completely blanched or about 30 seconds. The jellyfish noodles will shrink and become thinner and shorter. Drain and let cool. Refrigerate the jellyfish when cooled.
Prepare the sauce by mixing all the ingredients together. Set the sauce aside until ready to serve.
Just before serving squeeze any extra water out of the jellyfish and toss them together with the wood ear mushroom and cucumber in the sauce. Mount the salad on a plate and garnish with minced scallion and cilantro.