Stomolophus meleagris: Edible Jellyfish
“Music to the teeth” is what the Malaysians call them.
Americans may not eat jellyfish, but the rest of the world does, several hundred metric tons a year at around $20 a pound. It’s a many million-dollar business. And at least two or three of those drifting edibles are found off almost all the shores of America, one of them in pest numbers in Florida waters and the Gulf Coast. I don’t go looking for the creatures but when they turn up in my castnet they comes home with the rest of the catch. The catch, however, is the jellyfish have to be processed over then next several days to make them edible.
Actually there are several methods to cure the jellyfish all involve drying while retaining color and firmness. In fact, there are Jellyfish Masters like wine masters. The curing process is as much an art form as a science. Traditional methods can take more than a month. Express techniques three days. The at-home compromise is about a week. It’s not complicated. It just takes… some time. It also helps if you like to eat jellyfish.
I can remember the first time I had jellyfish in a restaurant. It was more than 20 years ago. I had a Taiwanese friend and went out to dinner often. That’s when I first learned that nearly every Asian restaurant has two menus, one for the Americans and one for the native crowd, and they don’t have the same selections. To this day I still order a particular salt-fried shrimp that is never on the main menu. My friend always had the custom of ordering three dishes for the two of us. And one day for the third dish she ordered was a jellyfish salad. It was delicious and crunchy and I was hooked.
There are actually several edible jellyfish, all processed the same way as far as I know. The most common one is the Cannonball Jellyfish, or Stomolophus meleagris (sto-moe-LOAF-us mel-EE-uh-gris) which in Dead Latin-mangled Greek means “speckled crested mouth.” Several copy-cat web sites say it means “many-mouthed hunter” which is quite absurd. Stoma in Greek means mouth. Lophos in Greek means crest. Meleagris in Greek literally means black and silver but in use means speckled. It is also the Greek name for the guinea fowl. I have no idea how “speckled crested mouth” got perverted into “many-mouthed hunter.”
For a creature few Americans outside of US shrimpers know about, the Cannonball has generated a lot of talk, research, anger and debt – no deaths that I know of (I had to mention that.) Found from Maine to Brazil, and from Southern California south on the west coast, it is a pest from about the latitude of North Carolina south. In certain months they can make up 16% of the biomass in shallow near-shore waters and estuaries, the latter a favorite haunt. Sometimes in the spring and fall there are so many Cannonballs in shrimp nets that the haul is too heavy to pull on board and the entire catch has to be dumped. On the other side of the issue, there have been attempts to harvest that very same jellyfish and make it into a commercial product, if only for shipping to the Orient where our domestic product is better than their native product. That, too, has gone bust and emptied a few wallets.
While found in the warmer months in northern latitudes they are a common species in late spring and early summer, particularly around the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Caribbean. During this time they often litter the coast. If you find them on shore leave them there. Get your catch while still alive and in the water. It is dense, rigid and holds it shape even out of water. They are good swimmer and can have a bell diameter up to 9 inches through. They don’t have tentacles per se but they do have 16 fused arms that push food towards what is its mouth/anus (these are simple creatures.) The bell can vary in color from bluish to yellowish and they are typically darker around the bottom edge.
The Cannonball has a mild if not unnoticeable sting that is usually harmless. However, some folks are allergic to it and for them it can be problematic so best avoid being stung. It has toxins that can cause cardiac problems and is also harmful to the eyes, so handle it with care. For the rare individual who is allergic to it, they should also not eat it.
Jellyfish (which really aren’t fish but relatives of coral and sea anemones) have to be processed soon after catching. No more than six hours is a good rule, immediately is better. They can be kept in seawater or put on ice. First you remove the trailing parts (if it were a mushroom, the stem.) That leaves you with the round part, the umbrella which has three layers, the exumbrella or the upper surface, the subumbrella or inner surface, and in between them the mesoglea (which means gelatin dessert.) The umbrella is scraped to get rid of any mucus then washed. Both parts are used and can be processed at the same time but commercially the perfectly preserved globe part — flattened to a pancake — is choice.
Don’t exceed a gallon of jellyfish per gallon of water, a roughly one to one ratio. In the first phase in a two gallon container soak the parts in a brine that is 7.5% salt and 2.55% alum (which if working with a gallon is 11.25 ounces (315 grams) of salt added to the gallon of water and almost four ounces (107 grams) of alum added to the same gallon. Soak them two or three days, then transfer to a second solution. This is a brine of 15% salt and 1% of alum, or 22 ounces (615 grams) of salt to a gallon of water, and 1.5 ounces (42 grams) of alum to a gallon. Soak them again for two or three days. Here methods vary.
In part three you can take them out of the brine, dry them, coat them with salt and let them dry for several days, turning often. You can also add weights to flatten them. Alternatively, you can put them in a third brine of 25% salt, or about 2.75 pounds of salt to a gallon and let them set for seven days. Then drained, dry and salt. The jellyfish are piled up to a foot high, one on top of another, and seven to eight pounds put on top for about three days. This flattens them like a pancake. They they are bagged and stored.
The final product is mild in flavor and light yellow to clear in color. To prepare for use the cured jellyfish are soaked in lots of water for several hours, over night is best, then cut into strips and scalded. Then they are used, often as a cold plate with a dressing soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil. They can also be cooked with other meat and vegetables.
A third curing method if you are really in a hurry is soak them in 15% salt and 10% alum for 48 hours… ( 22.5 ounces salt, one pound of alum per gallon) wash, drain for two hours, dry at 30C/86F for 9 to 12 hours in a mechanical dryer. If you want a bigger curing formula you would treat 132 pounds of Cannonball jellyfish with 81.5 pounds of salt, 6.5 pounds of alum. Then adjust the first recipe accordingly after that, 163 pounds of salt and about three pounds of alum. Ideally you have a one to one ratio of water and jellyfish, or less jellyfish but not more. A fourth method is simpy putting them in rock salt for a few days. I don’t know much about that one.
According to a 2001 study a desalted Cannonball is about 95% water and 4 to 5% protein. It is very low in calories and mostly collagen. For four ounces the nutritional values are 30 calories, none from fat; 120 mg of sodium and eight grams of protein. What does it taste like? Bubble wrap with dressing. For over 1,700 years, Asians have been eating jellyfish for medicinal reasons to treat high blood pressure, arthritis, bronchitis and reportedly to prevent cancer. By the way, the Cannonball collagen has suppressed induced arthritis in laboratory rats. In fact Auburn University holds a patent on an arthritis treatment involving jellyfish collagen.
Among the edible jellyfish are Aurelia aurita, Catostylus mosaicus, Cephae cephea, Crambione mastigophora, Crambionella orsini, Dactylometra pacifica, Lobonema smithi, Lobonemoides gracilis,Nemopilema nomurai, Rhopilema esculentum, Rhopilema hispidum, Rhopilema verrilli, Rhizostoma pulmo, Stomolophus meleagris and Stomolophus nomurai. The Rhopilema verrilli is also found in the Atlanta on America’s east coasts. And I well remember as a kid watching Aurelia aurita off the coast of Maine, never guessing it was edible.
There are actually two variations of Cannonball Jellyfish in local waters. On the Atlantic side is the kind with a brown rim around it, picture above. It is also called the ruby-lipped cannonball. The ones found in the gulf coast are whiter — snow white Gulf Balls, pictured below. The latter are the preferred ones for market. There is no taste difference, just customer preference in Japan and Korea… think white chicken eggs/brown chicken eggs kind of thing. Apparently the environment would be better off, too, if we ate more Cannonball jellyfish. They are veracious predators eating plankton, fish eggs and larvae. So if their population is reduced we’d probably have more fish.
Are the toxic jellyfish? Absolutely. The sea wasp– Chironex fleckeri — of northern Australia can kill you in three minutes. It has enough toxin to kill 60 at a whack. Locally, Portuguese Man o’ War can make your day miserable. Avoid any jellyfish with long tentacles.