With some careful preparation, stinging jellyfish make a delicious summer staple. Vietnam’s gorgeous central coast is famous for its natural beauty – which is made all the more beautiful, each summer, with the arrival of multi-colored clouds of floating jellyfish. These creatures aren’t just easy on the eyes. They have been eaten along the coast for generations and are now popular in Vietnam’s major cities. Rhopilema hispiium (the most widely harvested jellyfish in Vietnam) are poisonous when still raw and unprocessed. A recent Japanese study found that Vietnamese jellyfish harvesters suffer a “persistent eruption” when they accidentally touch their unwieldy catch. But there are no known dangers in eating it, once it has been processed. After netting a smack of jellyfish, fishermen have to take special care to render jellyfish suitable for the dinner table – the tentacles are said to be the most delicious part. When it is caught, fishermen carefully remove the mucous membrane – leaving behind the bluish, rheumy flesh. At times, the flesh is sun dried and cut into thin strips. At others, it’s merely soaked and sold fresh. After being netted at sea, the creatures are soaked in alum that is derived from crushed guava leaves. When left in the mixture, the paste causes the meat to contract and firm up. Jellyfish are harvested all up and down Vietnam’s coastline but it is considered a delicacy specific to Nha Trang, the capital town of Khanh Hoa Province, and Binh Dinh Province on the central coast. In Ho Chi Minh City restaurants are now regularly importing fresh jellyfish from the coast.
In the last few years, HCMC diners have warmed to the idea of dining on gỏi sứa, a salad that relies on the flavor of these prehistoric creatures. To prepare the salad, rinse the jellyfish and pat it dry. In many cases, the jellyfish is tossed in a pan with shredded chicken, sliced pork or prawns. Adding meat to the dish makes it a meal. The staple of the dish is acrid green banana, julienned mango, chopped ambarella, onion, crushed peanuts and herbs. The dish is served up with the central bánh tráng nướng (rice cracker), and dipped into soy sauce or a mixture of salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Jellyfish adds a nice flavor balance to seafood soups. The broth can be prepared either by boiling pork or fish bones for several hours and skimming the surface of the pot. To make the base, deep-fry annatto seed until the resulting oil is deep red. Fry shrimp and sliced pork belly (or fish cake) with seeded and quartered tomatoes and dump the resulting sauce into the pot of bubbling broth. Place scalded vermicelli into a bowl and add slices of jellyfish. Finish by adding a scoop of bubbling broth and serve hot.