How I became a medusivore
Photography by John Cox and Rob Fisher
It was an epicurean pursuit worth dying for. Despite the threat of nearby California sea lions many times their size, a school of young ocean sunfish (Mola mola) had ventured close to the shore of Monterey Bay in pursuit of what, for them, is a delicacy. But the sea lions had pounced, and as I looked down from Cannery Row, they were tossing the sunfish’s dismembered corpses around, like dogs playing with Frisbees. An irresistible bloom of moon jellyfish had lured the sunfish into the bay, but the trip had ended in catastrophe, leaving dozens of sunfish lying lifeless in the shallow tidal pools.
Both sunfish (that prehistoric-looking fish you see swimming around in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Open Sea exhibit and on page 28) and sea turtles seem to hold jellyfish, particularly moon jellyfish, in dangerously high gastronomic regard. Both are willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the mysterious treat. While the sunfish’s risk is the sea lions that hunt them for food and sport, the turtles’ risk is asphyxiation after mistaking a carelessly discarded plastic bag for a jelly.
Luckily for turtles and sunfish, moon jellyfish may soon be far more prolific. While data are far from conclusive, scientists predict that as oceans continue to warm and oxygen-depleted “dead-zones” continue to grow, jellyfish populations could explode. If this scenario plays out, jellyfish may become one of the few remaining edible resources from the sea.
Over the last decade, Japan has seen unprecedented blooms of Nomura’s jellyfish, the largest known Cnidaria in the world, reaching a staggering 450 pounds each. These giant jellyfish have been known to sink ships after the jellies became trapped in the boats’ fishing nets. The recurrent blooms have become such a concern that Japan is encouraging chefs to find new and creative recipes for preparing jellyfish. Interesting breakthroughs include a caramel candy made from dried jellyfish powder and a jellyfish-derived ice cream that glows in the dark. The luminescence proteins in the ice cream react with the pH on your tongue, so the more you lick the ice cream, the brighter it gets. However, at $200 per scoop, I don’t expect you will see this at local restaurants any time soon.
Historically, jellyfish has been eaten in parts of China, Japan and Southeast Asia. Almost without exception, the bells of certain species are cleaned of their tentacles and membranes, then salted and dried. Once dried, the jellyfish are cut into thin noodle-like strands and then rehydrated before being tossed, like rice noodles, with soy sauce and rice vinegar. The strips of reconstituted jellyfish have an interesting texture, but no discernible flavor other than salt.
Does this harvesting and eating jellyfish seem unimaginably foreign? You might want to consider this: Jellyfish are currently the third largest fishery in the state of Georgia.
The year 2013 was one of the worst in shrimping history off the Georgia coast, and many boats have shifted their focus to “jellyballs.” A good day of “jellyballing” can bring in upwards of $10,000, making it far more lucrative than shrimping. Commercial plants in Georgia are able to process more than 5 million pounds of jellyfish per week. The entire catch is exported to Asia. While the local species of cannonball jellyfish is not considered the highest grade jellyfish available, it is generally well regarded. Over the last decade the jellyfish blooms along the Gulf Coast have gone from being an impediment to an economic windfall for a struggling fishing industry.
I have yet to find a recipe that uses freshly caught jellyfish. This is likely due to the fact that seconds after the jellyfish are removed from sea water and exposed to the air, they begin to dissolve. My experience eating dried jellyfish was not memorable, but it made me wonder what it would be like to eat fresh jellyfish. Could it be the equivalent of comparing dried shrimp to fresh, succulent and sweet spot prawns? The sunfish and sea turtles certainly seem to enjoy the fresh jellyfish, but then again, perhaps they had adapted a unique ability to digest the jellies—and a unique taste for them?
My jellyfish exploration, like many of my adventures involving exotic local sea life, began at the Monterey Abalone Co., an abalone grower. Like a modernday version of Ed Ricketts’ lab, the Abalone Co. is expert at collecting topquality marine specimens for aquariums around the world. Collecting and shipping live jellyfish are very challenging, but the company’s team seems to have perfected the technique. When I first asked co-owner Trevor Fay about whether he knew anything about eating local moon jellyfish, he was somewhat skeptical, but produced a clear plastic bag with a perfect moon jelly suspended in cold seawater. The jellyfish, almost invisible save for a slight shadow, undulated gently against the sway of the bag as I placed it in my cooler.
Once I got the jellyfish back to my kitchen at Post Ranch Inn, the real challenge began. In theory, I believed that the jellyfish was edible—at least if it was cured and dried. In theory, I believed the jellyfish did not sting, or at least would just deliver a mild sting. I had a very rough understanding of the anatomy based on a questionable diagram I found online. It would have been smart and responsible to begin my experimentation by performing the time-honored technique of drying and pressing the jelly into a workable, and presumably safe, block. Of course, that’s not what I did.
I decided that I would proceed by removing the tentacles, just as I had read about, but would then try a piece raw before I put it into the salt cure. This was partly because the thought of waiting two weeks to try the jellyfish seemed an unbearably long time, and because many of the recipes I found required the use of alum—a substance tied to health concerns—as a preservative.
Jellyfish are currently the
third largest fishery in the
state of Georgia.
My cooks were less than encouraging, and openly speculated about the severity of sting I was about to incur and how long I would likely live after I ate the jellyfish. I reached into the bag and gently touched it. It was smooth and firmer than I had imagined. Below the bell I could feel fine ridges running toward the tentacles. So far there was no discernible sting. I gently raised the jellyfish out of the seawater and placed it on a cutting board. Quickly, I inserted a sharp paring knife into the top of the bell, hoping that it would kill whatever primitive nervous system the jellyfish was equipped with. I then rinsed the jellyfish under cold water and sliced away a section of the bell. I cut a small square and placed it on my tongue.
There was no sting. I rolled the piece of jellyfish inside of my mouth, then slowly bit down. The flesh was firm at first, but almost immediately began dissolving into a briny liquid that coated my mouth like a burst of sea mist. The sensation can be best described as a slightly salty oyster, with a clean flavor and more enjoyable texture.
As everyone watched to see whether I would fall to the floor writhing in pain, some began to apprehensively prod the jellyfish with their fingers. After another five minutes passed and I appeared to be no worse for wear, a couple of cooks took some pieces of jellyfish and marinated them with mint and lime. We passed the marinated jellyfish around the room for everyone to try. The consensus was that the jellyfish was not only edible, but actually quite delicious!
By the time we had finished enjoying the first batch of jellyfish, the remaining piece had already mostly melted into a puddle of goo on the cutting board; it was like watching an ice cube melt on a hot summer day.
The next week we repeated the experiment, but this time kept the remainder of the moon jellyfish submerged in saltwater. This method worked pretty well, and kept the flesh firm for 24 hours, making it a more practical ingredient.
From a nutritional standpoint, jellyfish is composed of 90% water and 4–5% protein. Its structure is comprised mostly of collagen, and jellyfish are very low in calories. Four ounces of jellyfish contain just 30 calories, no fat, 120 milligrams of sodium and 8 grams of protein.
In Asia, eating jellyfish is thought to be good for treating blood pressure, arthritis and bronchitis as well as preventing cancer. That may seem farfetched, but Auburn University does hold a patent on an arthritis treatment derived from jellyfish collagen.
There are also some species of jellyfish, known as immortal jellyfish, that have the ability to revert back to their juvenile polyp state when faced with death or injury. The jellies are able to regenerate their cells and begin the lifecycle over. While they are still susceptible to death, this odd trait has intrigued scientists and teased at the prospects for finding a key to eternal life.
Besides being visually stunning and simply fascinating, I think the moon jellyfish is a highly desirable local ingredient that has been largely overlooked.
If you’d like to prepare it yourself, jellyfish may be special ordered from Monterey Abalone (see note below). An easy introduction is to try it like a raw oyster—enjoyed simply, with tentacles removed and chopped into bite-sized pieces, a little freshly squeezed lemon or mignonette on top.
Maybe those sunfish weren’t so crazy after all—and maybe if, as some scientists predict, jellyfish take over the seas, we’ll still have at least one type of wild seafood on our plates.
John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. He is a regular contributor to Edible Monterey Bay and is an avid proponent of local food and culture. You can see more of his work at postranchkitchen. blogspot.com.
EXPLORE: If you’d like to try jellyfish—and other unusual Central Coast seafood, like whelks, sea urchin and spiny lobster—they can be special-ordered, subject to availability, from Monterey Abalone Co., located at the end of Wharf #2 in Monterey; abalone is always available. Chef Cox also includes, when available, moon jellyfish in his ninecourse Taste of Big Sur tasting menu at Sierra Mar, along with such better-known Central Coast delicacies as spot prawns, abalone and caviar-like steelhead roe.