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.
SEA ANEMONE (海葵, hǎi kuí)
Regions of use: China (coastal regions), Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia (coastal regions), the Mediterranean
Tasted at: Han Tong Seafood Restaurant (汉通海鮮) // 215 Huaihai Xi Lu, near Panyu Lu (淮海西路215号, 近番禺路) // Closest metro stop: Jiaotong University (交通大学) Line 10
My first encounter with sea anemone came when I was a little tyke clambering about tide pools on the Northern California Coast. For all toddlers, experiencing nature has a lot to do with touch, which for me, meant jamming my grubby little finger into the orifices of sea anemones, prompting them to scrunch up and squirt. After one such instance of anemone violation, my finger sprouted an angry rash which required a doctor’s visit – an event that, despite being karmic, raped my confidence. Fast forward to a day ago, when I was hunched over a tank of anemones at a Shanghai restaurant, knowing I’d have to ingest one, and that traumatic and itchy childhood memory surfaced like a dead fish.
Who eats it?
After researching a bit, I’d discovered I’m not the only one who’s had second thoughts about gnawing on these living turrets. Their nematocysts or stinging capsules that envenomate their prey, deter most predators, and can even cause adverse reactions in humans (knowledge that would’ve been useful all those years ago).
However, no amount of toxin can deter the globe’s voracious gastronomers as sea anemones are enjoyed by people across the globe. In Andalusia, where they’re called “ortiguillas de mar,” anemones are battered like fish and chips and deep-fried, while coastal Chinese eat them diced in soup. They’ve even made appearances on the menu at chef Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, the Mecca of molecular gastronomy. Unfortunately, info regarding the sea anemone’s historical and cultural significance is quite scarce.
Not a whole lot exists on sea anemone nutritional benefits either, but these creatures are proven medicinal wonders loaded with anti-cancer enhancers, compounds that can reverse MS paralysis, and stinging cells that can be employed to more painlessly (yes, you read correctly) inject insulin into diabetics. Clearly, the scarring memory of my “finger owie” was not going to suffice as an excuse for avoiding them, so we selected an anemone from the tank.
Soup de sea anemone
Our chosen purveyor was Han Tong Seafood Restaurant, a Ningbo eatery with sparklingly fresh sea critters. Their sea anemone prepping options include a thick stew or a thin soup with pickled vegetables, of which we chose the latter so we could better taste the anemone (68RMB per jin). The waitress arrived quickly, bearing a translucent broth lily-padded with vegetables under which lurked hunks of sea anemone that you roused to the surface by stirring the liquid.
And sea anemone kind’ve tasted like what you’d expect an animal that resembles a plant and dwells in the sea would taste like; a hybrid of pork and veggies with a fishy aftertaste.
The texture was harder to pinpoint. Each piece of anemone was coated in a thin film of transparent goop which rendered it slimy like a sauteed mushroom, but it was also slightly rigid like broccoli, and yet somehow gristly in the likeness of poorly ground meat. The ratio of sliminess to rigidity to chewiness appeared to change with every morsel.
After the chattering of our chopsticks came to a halt, the bowl was empty, and our curiosity and appetites sated. However, the back of my mind still harbored the slight fear that in a last-ditch effort to avenge its California brethren, one of the anemone morsels would latch its stinging tendrils onto my intestinal wall and we’d have to enlist the help of Bao Xishun to eradicate it.
Our verdict: not a sea an-enemy
Whether or not you’re afflicted with a deep-seated anemophobia, we believe you’ll find sea anemone to be one of Shanghai’s most fascinating eats. It runs the full gamut of textures, combines multiple flavors, still manages to bring its own unique essence to the table, and seemingly defies food pyramid categorization. Give it a nibble.
Editor’s note: The author’s rash was not just limited to his finger but spread throughout his body, as noted later by his mother. This only made it all the more traumatizing. He still itches to this day.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Century eggs
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].