By Benjamin Cost
It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
JELLYFISH (水母, shuǐ mǔ)
Regions of use: China, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia
Tasted at: Lu Bo Lang (绿波廊) // 115 Yuyuan Road, near Fuyou Road (豫园路115号, 近福佑路) // Closest metro stop: Yu Garden (豫园) Line 10
Our curious cravings had towed us back out to sea, this time in search of jellyfish, yet another textural anomaly in the realm of bird’s nest, shark’s fin, and sea cucumber. Though many might deem jellyfish a relatively tame exotic eat as it’s so widely available, we feel obligated to mention any creature that when washed up on the beach, looks like the gloppy remains of a blown-up alien. And in light of the recent Shanghai ban on pickled foodstuffs, we wanted to try this delicacy before it becomes increasingly “off the beaten menu.”
We don’t know exactly when the first intrepid “gastronaut” netted one of these stinging sea balloons and decided its slimy bell would be delicious served cold, but jellyfish’s culinary use dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1045 – 256 BCE), where it was an imperial court food. However, the earliest actual recipes hail from the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE), while Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) records first described how jellyfish was preserved in sea water and ash.
Preparing jellyfish today requires a trip to the wet market (we recommend Tongchuan Fish Market), where merchants generally sell different grades of dried golden-hued jellyfish mantles. You want to pick out the thinnest ones, which are the oldest and therefore, oddly enough, the highest quality.
To soak the dehydrated jelly, unfold the tarp-like skins, and immerse them in cold water overnight, changing the water several times. Afterwards, parboil the skins for about 15 seconds, and then quickly rinse them with cold water. Roll each sheet up individually and slice it as finely as possible.
The jellyfish pieces are now more-or-less ready to be served in a room-temperature salad with a sweet or spicy marinade. One of the more sumptuous Shanghai dressings calls for 3 chopped scallions, one and a half teaspoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of Shaoxing wine, 3 tablespoons of peanut oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil.
At this point, we just assume that any martian entity with a gelatinous body has miraculous nutritional powers. Jellyfish’s lineup includes minerals galore, properties that lower blood pressure, agents that stave off age-induced bone brittleness, and virtually no fat. Needless to say, the health nut within us was revved up.
‘Get in my jelly’
Alas, tracking down jellyfish doesn’t involve any submersible dives into the inky abyss in search of faint shimmers of light while an orchestra drones in minor key, and is contrarily one of the more mundane culinary quests we’ve undertaken.
You just scoot on over to Lu Bo Lang, a temple of a restaurant in the Yuyuan district that’s been visited by the likes of Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, and Fidel Castro – not exactly off the grid. Yes, it’s a bit touristy and therefore, pricey, but nonetheless a great place to go if you want the full-throttle Shanghai dining experience with awesome Hong Shao Ro, sea cucumber, and of course, jellyfish (48RMB).
With a texture that might’ve made Newton second-guess theoretical physics, jellyfish jiggles like jello, but crunches kind’ve like cucumber. Yet after only a few crunches, it liquefied in our mouths more quickly than ice in a hot wok.
As jellyfish is entirely flavorless, the sauce is a huge player, morphing seamlessly from salty into sweet, with intermittent nips of spiciness. We bathed every last quivering blob of sea jelly in marinade, and annihilated it.
For us, jellyfish represents the perfect Off the Beaten Palate food with enough stinging appendages and slime to make the cut, but also an accessible price, palatability, and a longstanding legacy in Chinese cooking. In fact, it’s fascinating how many essentially flavorless foodstuffs are worshipped by one of the most flavorful cuisines on the planet.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Sea worm
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].