Are you ready for this jelly?
Jellyfish have been eaten in parts of coastal China for at least 1700 years, and possibly much longer. The Chinese philosopher Zhang Hua, writing during the Jin dynasty in c.290 CE, described eating jellyfish, and they’ve remained a popular food since.
Jellyfish are savoured for their crunchy texture, rather than their flavour, which is apparently lacking. This may seem strange to our Western palates, but as Fuchsia Dunlop - a cook and writer specialising in Chinese food - explains, ‘One of the great barriers to outsiders’ appreciation of Chinese food is the Chinese love of textures that others consider revolting’. British food writer Stefan Gates describes the texture of jellies as ‘something between cartilage and rubber’.
Westerners might find the idea of jellyfish 'revolting', or at least unappetising, but it hasn’t always been this way. According to Patrick Faas, in Around the Roman Table, many Roman recipes called for jellyfish, including a delectable sounding ‘fish pâté with jellyfish’.
The Roman cookbook, Apicius, from the 1st century CE, describes a food called ‘sea nettles’, which may be a reference to jellyfish. The recipe, which suggests serving sea nettles on eggs, explains that, ‘no one at the table will know what they are eating’. Yum.
Aristotle, in his History of Animals (4th century BCE), also discusses jellies; ‘In wintertime their flesh is firm, and accordingly they are sought after as articles of food, but in summer weather they are worthless, for they become thin and watery, and if you catch them they break at once into bits.’
Jellyfish remain a popular food in many countries across Asia, including China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Singapore, though the leading consumer is Japan. And the tides may be turning on jellyfish as food in the West. One Danish scientist suggests snacking on jellyfish chips to curb population blooms, while an Italian zoology professor thinks jellies are the ideal sustainable food.
Is jellyfish the food of the future? I’m not sure. But it’s certainly a food of the past.