Foodstuff: Salted Jellyfish Shreds
Jellyfish is not something that most Canadians of non-Asian descent will have ever tried. Like a number of delicacies in Chinese cuisine, it is enjoyed not for the taste (indeed it has very little flavor) but rather for the unique consistency it possesses. To the uninitiated, the very notion of eating jellyfish is a little scary given the alien appearance of the creatures but, in fact, once you get past the initial cultural resistance to the whole idea, they are actually an interesting culinary experience and well worth the try …
Jellyfish are especially associated with Chinese cuisine but I have read references to them being eaten by the Romans, and the Japanese are now apparently beginning to consume them in greater quantities. When I first heard about these creatures being edible I was quite surprised as my only encounters with them have been with relatively small ones whose appearance seems far too delicate and insubstantial to actually provide anything to eat. I gather, however, that some Jellyfish can weigh up to 450 pounds and measure some 2 meters across and when you open a package of the salted, edible variety, the ‘flesh’ (for want of a better term) is indeed quite thick and meaty.
Jellyfish can be purchased whole, in large sheets, which must be cut up for further use, or else pre-shredded. It is possible to by them preserved in brine in glass jars but it is more common to find them heavily coated with salt and packed in plastic bags. The brand you see featured here comes from China and if you look very closely at the above picture, you may be able to see some of the salt crystals clinging to the ‘flesh’.
This particular brand comes pre-shredded, but as you can see in the picture above, there is quite a lot of irregularity in length and thickness of the individual pieces. This is not true of other brands and, while the irregularity may not matter for some dishes, one might want to do a little more ‘cosmetic’ trimming for certain presentations.
Most of the text on the package is in Chinese but there are some brief instructions in English, as you see above. I have to say, though, that when I read these, I was a little skeptical as the lengthy boiling and soaking seems somewhat excessive and not at all the same procedure I have followed with other brands. Indeed, if you bite into a strand or two fresh from the package, they are indeed salty, but not excessively so, and the texture is really quite tender and easy to chew.
As it happens (and as I discovered after a diligent exercise with my dictionary), the English and Chinese instructions are not the same. Whereas English readers are instructed to boil the jellyfish for three minutes, the Chinese version simply tells you to drop into boiling water until the pieces shrink and contract evenly, and then immediately remove them. Also, whereas the English text says to then soak the shreds in cold water for 8 hours, the Chinese instructions are to soak for *approximately* 8 hours until no salty taste remains.
Although I though that the instructions (both in Chinese and English) call for more preparation than strictly seems necessary, I did an experiment and tried both methods (albeit cutting down the length of the final soaking). I put some shreds into cold water and then blanched another equivalent amount in boiling water for about a minute and soaked them as well. I allowed both to soak for about three hours (changing the water several times as directed) and then compared the results.
As you can see, the quantity on the right (the boiled shreds) is quite a bit smaller in volume than on the right. The saltiness of both samples is exactly the same, being more or less salt free, and the only real difference between the two is that, after being boiled, the texture of the shreds does firm up a little. The difference, however, is not that great.
Following this experiment, I have concluded that the instructions given on this package are largely unnecessary and that you can mostly ignore them. In my opinion, all you really need do is rinse the shreds well and then, if desired, trim them into more uniform pieces. If you do wish to blanche them, no more than about thirty seconds or so is needed.
As to the texture and consistency, I have to say that the overall ‘mouth-feel’ is quite pleasant. One often reads that eating jellyfish is a bit like chewing rubber bands but I do not find that to be a very apt description. Rather, I would say that the texture is somewhere between a soft cartilage and properly cooked squid. When blanched first, the texture does have a touch more of the ‘rubbery’ quality usually associated with jellyfish but, even in this case, it is not difficult to bite into or chew.
I have only had this dish served to me as an ingredient in a cold-blended salad and, thus far, that is the only way I have prepared it myself. Jellyfish shreds, tossed with a little sesame oil and vinegar (as suggested on the package), are a common addition to many appetizer plates at Chinese banquets (often being paired with sliced roast pork), but it most commonly appears in mixed salads. Preparations with cucumber, bean sprouts or Chinese cabbage are common, but there are also more complex salads made using shredded duck meat or shrimp.
Recipes using jellyfish in hot dishes are exceedingly rare. Indeed, I have mostly only seen ones in which jellyfish are briefly cooked along with other ingredients and then the whole assembly is cooled before serving. I plan to make a few salads with the jellyfish I currently have (and will post the results in due course), but I also want to experiment with some cooked preparations. I recall seeing recipes for dumplings in which Shark fin was added for texture and I think jellyfish could be used to the same effect. I also think that shredded jellyfish might make an interesting addition to some soups and could also be used as an interesting textural ingredient in certain stir-fries. I’ll be experimenting in the weeks to come and will keep you updated as to my successes and failures as they occur…
Oh, by the way… I was wondering if nobody can help me with the one of the Chinese characters on the package. At the top of the package, there are three characters in a yellow, half-moon shape. The first consists of the water radical on the left, and the fish radical on the right but I was unable to find it in my dictionary. Is it possibly one of the uniquely Cantonese characters? I would be most pleased if someone could identify it for me