Return of the Blob

By Polly Shulman|Saturday, July 01, 1995
RELATED TAGS: NUTRITION, OCEAN
No one thought Americans would eat squid, either, argued Yao-Wen Huang, a food scientist at the University of Georgia, but now squid is a valuable product. We were discussing the potential domestic market for another tentacled seafood traditionally considered yicky by the Burger King set: jellyfish. They’re eaten all over Asia, at banquets and special occasions, said Peggy Hsieh, a food chemist at Auburn University in Alabama. Jellyfish are a treat.

Both Huang and Hsieh dream of revitalizing the U.S. fishing industry by expanding the American palate. Huang first had the idea in 1983, when he read a newspaper article about a nuclear power plant that had to shut down for two weeks because cannonball jellyfish had clogged its cooling-water duct. Cannonballs, or Stomolophus meleagris, are sprinkled about southeastern coastal waters like the freckles on a redhead, and Huang hated seeing them go to waste. In Taiwan, where he grew up, he’d enjoyed munching on Rhopilema verrilli and Aurelia auripa--moon and mushroom jellies. It occurred to him that perhaps the nuclear plant’s maintenance staff could replace their plumber’s helper with chopsticks.

Not yet having tried them myself, I was dubious. Banquet treats make me suspicious. From a purely gustatory point of view, the biggest thing to be thankful for at Thanksgiving is how infrequently it happens. There’s the cranberry sauce Uncle Herman insists on making with cayenne pepper and Sweet ’n Low. There are the Polish dumplings in gravy of which Josephine is so insanely proud. And please don’t tell Mom, but brussels sprouts still give me the willies. I just can’t get past the impression that I’m eating fetal cabbages.

Then there’s the whole gefilte fish issue. Grandma Rosie, may she rest in peace, was famous throughout Hackensack for her gefilte fish. Every Passover, it arrived at the table with its amniotic gelatin still clinging to it. If jellyfish are anything like gefilte-fish jelly, I thought, the Asians can keep them.

But Hsieh says it isn’t so. The joy of jellyfish, she explains, lies in their crunch. Malaysians call jellyfish ‘music to the teeth.’ Before they can be eaten, however, jellyfish have to be cured by salting. The blobby-textured beast you stumble over on the beach consists of about 96 percent water, 3 percent protein, and 1 percent minerals. It must be processed with salt and alum, or aluminum sulfate, to disinfect it, denature the protein, and reduce its moisture content to between 65 and 75 percent. The result bears about as much similarity to the original as sauerkraut does to cabbage, or the wizened, six-fingered black claw at the back of my refrigerator does to the proud bananas I bought last spring.

Not all jellyfish, however, are fit for human consumption. At the time I started my work, there was no mention in the literature of cannonballs as edible, says Huang. He rose to the challenge. First he removed the jellyfish’s trailing parts. That left him with the round, globby part, called the umbrella, which consists of three layers: the exumbrella (or upper surface), the subumbrella (or inner surface), and in between them, the mesoglea (or gelatin dessert). Instead of accidentally leaving the umbrella behind in a movie theater, as I always do, Huang experimented with ways of curing it. The traditional Asian method takes six weeks to two months, but Huang developed a weeklong three-stage process in which he changes the concentration of salt and alum at each stage. In the last phase, he uses a press. The umbrellas become pancake thin. I pile them in a stack 30 centimeters thick, containing about 15 to 20 jellyfish with layers of salt and alum between them, and apply a weight. IHOP, take heed.

To his delight, the product had a cleaner color than imported goods, as well as a crisper, firmer texture and a wonderful elastic tenderness.

Though the cannonball isn’t yet available outside Huang’s lab, dishes prepared from imported jellyfish are easy enough to find in any American city that has a large Asian population. With my game, if dubious, friends Chuck and Amy, I headed apprehensively to New York City’s Chinatown to order my very first jellyfish.

Chuck’s reaction was immediate. That is the god-awfullest- looking thing I have ever had put in front of me in a restaurant, he said. We had to admit he had a point. A quivery tangle of material that was the color of translucent peanut butter lay heaped in the center of the plate. It was surrounded by wedge-shaped sections of an ellipse, which shaded from the hue and transparency of strong coffee through deep, opaque olive to a pencil yellow core.

What are those, asked Amy, slices of geode?

I consulted my menu. I think they must be the hundred-year eggs.

It may take me a hundred years to bring myself to eat them, said Chuck. Perhaps in sympathy with the eggs, he had joined their color family.

I paused in the middle of dishing out. A strand of jellyfish dangled bouncily from the spoon. You don’t have to, you know. We won’t think any less of you if you think better of it, I lied.

That got Chuck’s dander up. Give it here, he said, pointing to his plate. I obeyed. Together the three of us wrestled the slippery strands aloft, clicked chopsticks, winced, and bit.

My disappointment was bitter. The stuff was absolutely delicious.

Not quite absolutely, objected Amy.

All right, relatively. Relative to caviar, hot dogs, tiramisu, Hostess Sno Balls, and those honey-roasted peanuts they sell on street corners in November. Relative to most of my cooking, and probably some of yours. Relative to a hundred perfectly palatable food and beverage products, all of which would wreak havoc on a fellow’s physique if given free rein. Relative to these, jellyfish rule. Because not only are they delectable, but--as Hsieh eagerly points out--jellyfish are the perfect diet food. They’re extremely low in calories, with almost no fat, she enthuses. They’re rich in minerals and, once they’ve been de-salted, low in salt. And just as Hsieh said, they’re delightfully crunchy. Grandma Rosie, a connoisseur of the kosher dill, would have appreciated the texture.

It’s a little like a gherkin, isn’t it? I said.

Not quite, said Chuck. But like something familiar.

Gummi bears? put in Amy. Apricot leather? Shoe Goo?

No, wait, I’ve almost got it. Chuck closed his eyes and chomped, frowning. I know--bubble wrap.

Bubble wrap in a light dressing of rice-wine vinegar and sesame oil, that is. For a while we crunched contentedly, as happy as kids with a juicy sheet of packing material to pop. Then we turned our attention to the egg.

It tasted, we agreed, exactly like any other egg.

After that intriguing introduction to the jellyfish, I wanted to take a closer look at what I’d been eating. Fortunately, the aquarium was having a special on jellyfish. In a cylindrical tank, what appeared to be delicately etched, animated Steuben finger bowls throbbed in slow circles. I waded through children to the next tanks, where a succession of displays- -some living, some sculpted from imitation glop--illustrated the life cycle of the typical jellyfish.

Like your most nightmarish ex, a jellyfish is brainless, heartless, and spineless, its mouth no different from its anus. Most of us recognize the adult form, a globe with trailing hair, called a medusa after the rapacious, snake-haired lady the sight of whom turns mortals to stone. The sexually mature medusa makes beautiful music with another medusa, resulting in the next stage--the fertilized egg. This hatches into a microscopic hairy jelly bean, called a planula larva, which develops into a polyp--something like a mushroom having seizures--called a scyphistoma. The scyphistoma attaches itself to a rock, and at this point it has the option of budding into more scyphistomae, thus saving it the agony of dating. Or it can turn into an upside-down chandelier. The chandelier, or strobila, releases its candles, which open out into star-shaped ephyra, each with eight notched arms. These arms fuse, and the critter grows up into a medusa.

Some of the tykes underfoot threatened to grow up into medusae as well. Sophie, I can’t take you places if all you want to do is eat, protested a harried dad.

Would you eat a jellyfish? I asked.

No way, said Sophie. They sting.

Indeed they do. Among Cubomedusae, or box jellyfish, the sea wasp--Chironex fleckeri--can kill you in three minutes flat. (Needless to say, nobody tries to eat it.) But even edible jellies have stinging cells. When you bite a jellyfish, why doesn’t it bite back? Well, there have been cases reported in which hives and discomfort were experienced by people who ate jellyfish and by people who prepared them, says Joseph Burnett, a dermatologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. But such cases are rare; the salting process breaks down the poison, which is mild to begin with in the edible species. And if you tried to eat a raw jellyfish? You’re going to get stung on your mouth, says Burnett. Common remedies for jellyfish stings include anointing the affected area with vinegar or wine. If those aren’t available, urine will do the trick. But according to Burnett, the diluted acids in these remedies will inactivate only the toxin in nondischarged jellyfish stinging cells that remain on the skin; to relieve pain from toxin that has penetrated the skin, you have to take aspirin or another pain reliever.

Are Hsieh and Huang onto something? With the help of Jack Rudloe, director of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Florida, and the self-proclaimed founder of the American jellyfish movement, Hsieh hopes she can convince fisherfolk to get their feet wet in the jellyfish business. It won’t be easy--Rudloe already took a bath in 1993, when an American jellyfishing venture he’d raised money for went belly-up. Rudloe and Hsieh have more backbone than their favorite food, though, and they don’t give up easily.

Will jellyfish snack packs take America by storm? The flavor and texture beat the pants off a Twinkie, but how do jellyfish measure up for convenience and ease of preparation? To find out, I decided to make some myself.

At the first three Asian markets I tried, no one knew what I was asking for. They directed me variously to a jar of sour cherries, a bag of fresh chili peppers, and a can of Wu Chung Grass Jelly. I didn’t need to come to Chinatown for this, I thought. I could have just asked Uncle Herman. Then it occurred to me to draw pictures and show them to the woman at the checkout counter, and after a false lead in the lightbulb section, I found what I was looking for.

Dried jellyfish come packed in plastic (though not bubble wrap), whole or preshredded. The directions printed on the packages I bought involved soaking the contents in several changes of water for periods varying from an hour to overnight. I couldn’t bring myself to cut the whole jellyfish once it was reconstituted, so I left it at the gym in case someone had forgotten her swimming cap. The preshredded material, once soaked, developed the texture of elderly rubber bands--but not, alas, the flavor. Even my cats turned up their noses. What had gone wrong?

In Asia, quality varies tremendously, says Hsieh. There is no standardization in the industry. That is one reason my colleagues and I are working to automate jellyfish processing in America.

Jellyfish are an extracurricular passion for Hsieh; most of her research involves developing ways to detect food adulterants. Using monoclonal antibodies--proteins that attach themselves to specific chemicals--she can tell you if there’s horse meat in your hamburger, or pork in your kosher frank. Now she’s working on a method, using a technique called isoelectric focusing, to identify various species of fish once they’ve been cooked. If you suspect that the expensive swordfish you were served was plain old halibut, Hsieh is your woman. Sneak a sample out in your briefcase. We have a field-test kit for the meat products, she says, but the fish needs to go to the lab.

Hsieh brought her experience with protein chemistry to her analysis of jellyfish innards. She’s shown that most of the protein in a jellyfish consists of collagen, a material commonly found in chicken feet and Barbara Hershey’s lips. For a thousand years, Asians have regarded jellyfish as a treatment for high blood pressure. They use it to treat bronchitis, arthritis, and even to prevent cancer, says Hsieh. Collagen, she suspects, is the important ingredient.

Jellyfish is an absolutely magical food, agrees Rudloe. All eight species of sea turtle eat jellyfish at some stage in their development. The leatherback--the world’s biggest species--eats jellyfish all the time. It grows to maturity in a few years and can weigh up to an incredible 2,000 pounds. The mola fish eats jellyfish exclusively, grows to maturity in two years, and weighs up to a ton. I looked at all this, and I thought, ‘Something is definitely going on here.’ (I thought so, too. Weren’t jellyfish supposed to be a diet food? Maybe the mola should switch to sugar-free cola.)

Rudloe’s commercial interest in jellyfish began in 1983, when the Howard Hughes Medical Institute hired him to drag the Apalachicola Bay, on the Florida panhandle, for electric rays. The water was polka-dotted. There were acres and acres and acres of jellyfish. Like Huang, he found their abundance compelling. I had heard that they’re eaten in China, so every now and then I’d take a bite out of one and say ‘Yech.’ It didn’t make sense that you would really dine on these things.

Still, Rudloe was intrigued. When he was done catching some rays, he switched his focus to their gelatinous neighbors. The jellyfish he’d heard described as tasty were Rhopilema esculenta, Asian cabbageheads; the ones he’d been admiring were cannonballs. Fishermen consider them a pest. They prey on oyster and clam larvae and some fish and their eggs; they weigh down shrimp nets, making them so heavy the shrimpers have to abandon their catch. Like Huang, he wondered if cannonballs could be eaten like the Asian species. If so, Rudloe thought, it would be tantamount to turning tentacles into gold.

But there have been setbacks to overcome. Rudloe tried in 1992 and 1993 to export cannonballs to Japan, at the time the world’s leading jellyfish consumer (that distinction now belongs to Korea). The attempt was a failure, he admits, partly because of bad timing; it was a bumper year for Rhopilema. Also, he picked the wrong cnidarian: the Atlantic, or ruby- lipped, cannonball. Unlike the whiter Gulf cannonball, the Atlantic variety has a brown ring around the margin of its umbrella, and the Japanese didn’t like that. This has nothing to do with quality, Rudloe fumes. This is just food prejudice. When he gets the capital together, he’s going to try again, this time with the snow white Gulf ball.

If the cannonball mavens succeed in creating a new American fishery, what will it do to our marine ecology? Who eats these jellyfish? Not too many creatures, answers Jennifer Purcell, a marine biologist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies, who specializes in the ecology of gelatinous zooplankton. They’re pretty firm, and they may be too hard for fish. And although jellyfish are eaten by sea turtles, it’s not easy to say exactly which species a sea turtle’s been enjoying for lunch. They’re almost entirely water, so they don’t stick around that long. We identify them by their nematocysts--the stinging cells--but those are quite similar from species to species. It would be hard to identify the intestinal contents of a sea turtle as belonging to a particular jelly.

How would such an industry affect the organisms underneath jellyfish in the food chain? Cannonballs are extremely important predators, says Purcell. They eat all sorts of plankton, as well as fish eggs and larvae. So if their population were reduced, would fish fare better, with more food and fewer predators? Maybe, but maybe some other species of jelly would move in to take up the slack. There’s a whole lot of jelly out there.

And if Rudloe, Hsieh, and Huang have their way, soon there’ll be a whole lot of jelly in here too.
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