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Turning the Tables on Overfishing?

September 21, 2009

In recent years, the media have been paying considerable attention to jellyfish blooms or swarms, phenomena in which huge numbers  of jellyfish occur within a limited area of the sea, sometimes clogging harbours or wrecking fishing nets. It has been suggested that these blooms may be becoming more frequent, as our overfishing of other creatures may be opening up ecologic niches for these opportunistic animals. It has also been proposed that, if other sea animals become sufficiently rare, we humans may end up eating a lot more jellyfish than we currently do.

Those of you who have read other pieces in this blog will know that I have an enduring interest in jellyfish. For several years I have been studying fossil jellies in extreme (possibly excessive) detail, I have travelled to other cities to study modern examples in museum collections, and whenever I have the opportunity I examine and photograph modern beached medusae. I have also been unpleasantly stung by jellies in the past, but until last night I had never had a relationship with them that could be described as “trophic.”

jellyfish_snack

A few weeks ago, I bought these preserved jellyfish on a whim. We were at the local Chinese grocery store, and I was intrigued that there were a lot of packages of jellies in the “impulse buy” location beside the checkout. They came in two different flavours, so we decided to get the less spicy ones. Once purchased, they resided in the fridge for several weeks, since actually eating them was clearly less appealing in the concrete than it had been in the abstract.

Last night we were cooking Chinese food, and since we planned on making calamari with garlic, we thought we’d might as well go all-out on the “creatures with tentacles” theme and try the packaged jellies.   The jellies that are sold in the food trade are the bodies of the big, “meaty” rhizostomes. Rhopilema esculentum is the species used in Chinese food  (according to Wikipedia), though of course I was unable to confirm that identification from the bits we purchased. As with some squid rings, you aren’t actually eating the tentacular part of the animals. Rather, trained jellyfish experts have stripped out the umbrella (bell) and the oral arms, treated them with salt and other substances, and preserved them so that they don’t need refrigeration.

We opened the package to find that it contained stringy, translucent strands. These were rinsed thoroughly, and then we added the oil and chili sauce that came in a small separate packet. Maybe we should have washed the jelly bits more; we followed the instructions on the package, but some sources suggest that they should be washed for far longer, and left overnight to remove the salt.  Anyway, the saltiness did not seem particularly at issue when we came to eat them.

jelly_snack2

When picked up with chopsticks, the jelly pieces had a slithery but fresh texture, with a nice light crunch when you bit into them. My dinner companions were less enamoured of this physical part of the experience than I was; the jellies were described by one daughter as “crunchy yet gelatinous,” and by the other as “interesting.” Unfortunately, the taste was less interesting than the texture. They had about as much flavour as the least-flavourful seaweed I have ever eaten. The jellies could be described as slightly marine, mildly plant-like, but with a trace of a gag-inducing edge. The least pleasant part of the experience, for me, was that this “edge” remained, several hours later, as a metallic memory near the back of my mouth.

The jellyfish could well have been better if soaked in fresh water for longer, or if mixed in a salad (as was suggested on one page I looked at). But I ate them as little bits mixed in with my rice and greens, and they still stood out as a remarkably unappetizing foodstuff.

If we continue to work our way down the marine food chain, will we reach a stage where jellyfish are the only marine animals that ordinary people can afford to eat?  Based on last night’s experience, I would probably renounce seafood entirely at that point.

© Graham Young, 2009

2 Comments leave one →
  1. lockwooddewitt permalink
    September 21, 2009 2:47 pm

    You’ve sold me off trying jellies. Some friends and I were at a Chinese restaurant in Portland, OR, 15 years ago or so, and two of the appetizers we ended up getting were described as “fried jellyfish” and “fried pigs’ ears.” The former were crunchy, in a pork rind sort of a way, or like rice crackers, and not at all bad. The latter had a crunchy outside but a sort of cartilagenous texture I really disliked, though the flavor wasn’t bad. I asked the waitress if the “fried jelly fish” was actually jellyfish; she gave me a horrified look and said “No! What makes you think we would serve real jellyfish to our customers?!” She wasn’t able to explain what it actually was, though; I suspect it might have been rice crackers.

    On a later return, one of my friends asked if the “pigs’ ears” were actually pigs’ ears. “Well, of course. Why would we call them pigs’ ears if they were actually something else?”

    I guess it’s one of those cultural differences that don’t make sense from the outside.

    • Graham permalink*
      September 21, 2009 2:57 pm

      I suspect that the jellyfish might be a lot better if prepared by a professional, and there could well have been issues with my attempts to interpret the Chinese English on the packaging.

      Speaking of pigs’ ears, I went to a buffet lunch in Beijing that included donkeys’ ears. But I didn’t try them, so I can’t tell you whether they would compare favourably with jellyfish!

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