For a species that has thrived in the world's oceans for more than half a billion years, jellyfish are surprisingly scarce in Western cuisine. It's true that they look weird, trippy even, like some blobby alien creature from a Kurt Vonnegut novel, but Toronto chef Nick Liu thinks we should all eat more of them.
"It's the most sustainable seafood you can eat," he says.
Liu has been eating them since he was a child. He recalls attending Chinese banquet dinners in which the first course was typically pork hock served with a cold, crunchy mound of jellyfish as a palate-cleansing appetizer.
"I remember always loving the jellyfish," he says, "but not always loving the pork."
At his new Asian-inspired restaurant, DaiLo, Liu serves a more refined interpretation of that banquet dish. He deep-fries pork hock and coats it in a sweet and spicy sauce made from caramelized palm sugar. It's crispy, fatty and as addictive as candy. On the side he adds a slaw of shredded and salted jellyfish – procured from a local Asian supermarket – tossed with napa cabbage, red onion, radish, chilies, sesame seeds and a soy-lime vinaigrette.
One could easily forget that Liu's salad actually has jellyfish in it, because these odd sea creatures have no discernible taste. The texture, though, is crisp and refreshing – a fascinating cross between squid and al dente rice noodles. It's an ideal contrast to the pork's zealous decadence.
"It's beautiful," Liu says of cooking with jellyfish. "It's textural and it's a little salty. It's a great vehicle to put whatever sauce you want on it."
He might be onto something with his assertion of sustainability, too.
Ocean Wise, a conservation program based out of the Vancouver Aquarium, hasn't yet given its stamp of approval to jellyfish, since scientific data on worldwide populations is limited. However, Ocean Wise representative Teddie Geach says large jellyfish formations known as "blooms" seem to be more commonplace – and problematic – around the world.
Geach sites several reasons for the proliferation, including an increase in ocean temperatures and a reduction of jellyfish predators such as sea turtles and tuna. Jellyfish blooms can be troublesome, she adds, by hampering tourism and by clogging fishing nets. Blooms have also been known to shut down power plants by blocking water intake.
Jellyfish have long been a staple in Asian cuisine. They are usually net-caught in the wild, then stored in a salt solution. Cooking them makes them rubbery, so they are usually served uncooked or lightly boiled. They are commonly available at Asian supermarkets or at classic Asian restaurants such as Taste of China, which has long been a late-night stalwart for chefs across Toronto.
There, owner and chef Ping Cham Yeung makes a popular jellyfish salad. The flavours are skillfully balanced with heat from chili oil, umami from oyster sauce and nuttiness from sesame oil, along with sweet and tart flavours from pickled carrot and daikon.
Au courant new restaurants across the country are also starting to serve jellyfish. It's been spotted at Kingyo Izakaya in Vancouver and also at various Guu locations in Vancouver and Toronto. At Montreal's Jardin Iwaki, chef Tadayuki Endo often serves jellyfish as the first course of his tasting menu. He marinates the seafood for half a day in vinegar, sugar, salt and chili peppers and serves it with chopped cucumber.
"The texture is special," he says.
Still, the conservationists at Ocean Wise aren't sure that eating jellyfish is going to solve any ecological problems.
"I don't think that this eat 'em to beat 'em mentality is the solution," Geach says. "These blooms are an indicator that our ecosystems are out of balance. We should be looking at the bigger picture as to why this is happening."