When I was a little kid, I wasn’t afraid of anything but looping roller coasters and STDs. I always thought I was gonna fall right through the harness and wind up horribly disfigured. And that applies to both my childhood fears. But other than those, I was a brave kid. Climbing trees, swinging from vines, jumping over open graves and completely missing the symbolism every time I nearly fell in. I was stupid, but I was brave. But then came the jellyfish. Oh, that devilish trash bag of the sea.
I used to swim through a marine reserve off the shore of La Jolla in California. One day, as I was swimming about half a mile offshore, I found myself staring at a family of bat rays drifting by around 20 feet down. What I didn’t notice was the jellyfish, that giant, evil floating snot rocket, drifting menacingly into my path. It was too late. I was going too fast. Distracted by the only animals in my vicinity that couldn’t claim a relation to Satan himself, I swam directly into the thing. The horror of what had happened hit in an instant, and I immediately jerked my head into the air, but by that point my momentum had carried me under the monster’s bell to such a perfect degree that my instinctive reaction carried the jelly with me until I bobbed in the water with it perfectly balanced on my head like a fashionably painful hat. A medusa beanie. Bob Marley with stinging dreads.
A second passed. Just to let the image sink in.
Then I screamed, tearing the jellyfish off my face with such ferocity that it came apart like a strawberry jam in my hands. The welts were starting to form around my neck and I paddled as fast as I could back through the reserve towards the shore, where I grabbed a jug of vinegar from the lifeguard’s stand and poured the entire thing on my face like I’d just coached a championship team. The jellyfish was long gone, but I could still feel it’s slimy, gelatinous form sliding like knives and krakens over the nape of my neck.
I still think I’m a relatively brave guy. But ever since then, seeing a jellyfish puts a pit in my stomach. We all have our windmills. Mine are 98% water and look like something that a cat puked up in the vet’s office.
But you know how you swallow a fear? Swallow it literally. Eat it.
During my last week teaching English in Hoi An, a student named Ly offered to take me to one of her favorite restaurants – this little shack on the beach near her house. Hoi An is known for having some bomb-ass feed – Anthony Bourdain visited a little shack there for bahn my and included it in his No Reservations list as some of the best food in Vietnam. Bourdain knows what he’s talking about. The food in Vietnam is amazing, and the trend tends to be that the smaller and dirtier the shop, the better the food. The shack Ly brought me to was sandy and small. The chairs were the tiny plastic kind you bring to a child’s tea party, and when I saw this, I knew that the food would be amazing. But this segment isn’t Snacking Average and once I took a look at the menu, I knew what I had to order.
Fried Jellyfish. Catharsis in sweet & sour.
I didn’t even know jellyfish was a dish on this side of the world, but I wasn’t surprised. As the restaurant owner didn’t speak English, my student needed to order for me. At first she refused. Apparently, eating fried jellyfish is considered kind of disgusting in any culture, but there it was on the menu. After an appetizer of clams (gets the gullet ready for that slimy feeling), we got the plate.
Jellyfish, if Wikipedia is to be believed (I’ll assume somebody who goes out of their way to edit the page on friggin’ jellyfish actually has a working knowledge of the subject), are prepared in a 20-40 day process involving salt, alum, and a sick ignorance of how delicious virtually any other sea creatures can be. The little slabs that adorned my plate were milky white with tiny brown spots, sticking out from the boiled greens and browns of whatever else was on the plate. I didn’t care what it came with. I came for one reason: to take out some repressed anger on a creature that probably couldn’t think a thought even if it was alive. I offered some to Ly first, as she was treating me to the lunch, but she recoiled and continued on her decidedly better-looking noodle dish.
I popped the first one in my mouth. Having felt how easily a live jellyfish can come apart in a distressed person’s hands, the firmness surprised me. Maybe it had something to do with how it was prepared, but I was expecting something more like a nosebleed in my mouth. Instead, I was reminded of the pig’s brains, with a slightly milder taste. Almost like a cheesecake made of plastic, the kind of thing that sits in the back of your throat resisting all efforts to be swallowed. The skin of the jellyfish – if that’s what it was, do jellyfish have skin? – was rough, a texture similar to a used piece of sandpaper. It tickled the roof of my mouth as I chewed. Soon, the tiny phobic slab was reduced to the same consistency as the jellyfish that inspired my fear all those years ago, and I swallowed.
A smile crept up on my face as I ate. The jellyfish was utterly disgusting to eat, obviously, and though I felt no desire to eat the rest, I forced myself to continue until the entire plate was gone. The greens on the plate lay uneaten and Ly looked at me quizzically.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“Hated it. I want more.”
I don’t understand seafood. Obviously we’ve mastered the culinary art of the catch, and fish are definitely delicious. They look like the kind of things we would eat naturally, on land. But what inspired people to start eating invertebrates? Who looked at an octopus and decided to put it in their mouth? Who thought a lobster, that cockroach of the sea, looked delicious (God bless ‘em for their spirit)? A jellyfish?
I probably won’t eat jellyfish again. It wasn’t terrible, more bland than anything, but it certainly wasn’t the delicacy I had expected. The way they look, that eerie undulation in their movements, gives jellyfish a much more upsetting image than their texture could support. But you know what? I’m cool with them now. I went to Ha Long Bay at the end of my trip, where I wakeboarded and tubed for four days straight. Eventually, I found out that the water was lousy with jellies, but the normal pit in my stomach, the pit I expected, was gone. I had had my revenge, had let go of old grudges. Of course, I am going to Australia next month and may find that the Irukandji completely revalidates everything. But for now, I feel whole.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But I’ll tell you, it also goes pretty damn well with sweet & sour.