Food writer Nicola Miller recreates a dish with an unusual ingredient which revived her after sneaking out to go clubbing in her teens while staying in South Korea. . .
If something annoys you, eat it is my mantra. Obviously, there are limits, but of late, I have sautéed tendrils of golden hop after they attempted to garrot me in the garden and, after being stung by a jellyfish on my second day on the beach in Busan, South Korea, I took great pleasure in devouring an enormous bowl of Haepari Naengchae, Korean jellyfish salad. Not the actual jellyfish that stung me, you understand, but a relative of it who was in the wrong place at the right time for a wolfishly hungry, post-clubbing me.
That was the first time I had eaten jellyfish, aged 16. Decades later, I would travel a little closer to home to Noodles+ on Cambridge’s Mill Road, where I would order bowlfuls of jellyfish mixed with shredded cucumber and dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar and sugar. The vibe was a little different to Busan. Noodles+ is a small place on a busy road packed with town and gown and it serves the best Xiao long bao I have ever eaten in this country, although it is the jellyfish salad I go there for. Owners Dong Huang and Hui Yan Lui have built the kind of business where customers start queuing outside its shuttered front well before opening time. Watching the food being made is like watching culinary zhé zhi; it is both swift and measured in its execution and eating, and texture, flavour and temperature come together in a perfect way. The café is warm and steamy, and most of its customers seem to be Chinese university students and visitors to the town. On my last visit, they only took cash.
In South Korea, I would go to bed fully clothed and wait until my parents and siblings were fast asleep before sneaking out of my room to go clubbing in a nightclub at a hotel that sat perched on a rocky peninsula at one end of Haeundae Beach. My window overlooked the arc of the bay, and I remember watching the smoky blue haze, where the sky met the sea, turn to midnight blue as the night fell, and I waited impatiently for my family to fall asleep. I was too high up to hear the chug of the fishermen’s boats as they put out to sea, but after a few hours of dancing, my friends and I would emerge into the humid air of the pre-dawn to see the lights from the squid boats growing closer as they returned to port.
The best post-clubbing breakfast is a Korean fisherman’s one packed with carbs, protein and freshness. Eating jellyfish salad and a bowl filled with naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) allowed me to return home, collapse into bed and keep my eyes open long enough to convince my parents I had been asleep all night before they left me to my own devices again. My friends were local teenagers and took me to the nearby Nampo Port, where Jagalchi Market, the largest seafood market in South Korea, is located. This is a dazzling place, heady with ozone and sweetness, somewhere that requires you to keep your wits around you as you navigate its bustle. It is so electric with life that it feels as if you must push yourself against the thick, humid air to keep moving, despite the calls and enticements of the (then) mainly female stallholders to stop and try their wares. This is where I ate jellyfish for the first time, leaning against a pile of discarded crates and trying to convey my enjoyment with the (approximately) ten Korean phrases I had learned before we all caught a cab for the short ride back. It was already too humid to walk, and the lack of air conditioning in the cab meant the backs of our legs stuck to its plastic-covered seats as the sun started to burn through the mist that rolled in from the Sea of Japan.
This is a meal I crave when I am recovering from a cough or cold, or my head feels fuzzy after a winter of central heating (or night of dancing). Like all seafood, it feels like a luxury even though jellyfish is not as expensive as, say, oysters, octopus or clams. And if you enjoy the texture of octopus or squid, you will like jellyfish too, even though it does not have the flavour of its seafood stablemates. This is all about a slurpy texture: think of jellyfish as the noodle of the sea and, in fact, I would consider serving this with some kelp noodles for an extra hit of the ocean.
This version is not strictly Korean or Chinese. (Remember, this is a salad that is eaten in many parts of Asia, and each region has its own iteration.) Korean jellyfish salad is often served at gatherings where the vegetables are arranged crudité-style around a tangle of jellyfish. The Chinese version at Noodles+ is served mixed with the vegetables, and I have referenced this in my version and replaced the Korean-style mustard-based dressing I ate in Busan with a lighter dressing made with rice vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. The salad’s pear, jellyfish and cucumber flavours are an ozonic shot of cold, fresh sea air, their textures crunchy, stretchy, crisp and ice-cold. I did not want the dressing to overpower this. I order jellyfish from souschef.com. It comes ready-shredded in 170g packets (YKOF brand) and only needs rinsing to eliminate the brine it is packed in. I also buy it from Sing Kee in Leeds (they will do mail order), and many stores selling ingredients from Asia will stock it. I have asked my local Faraway Foods store to get some in too. Also, you really need Nashi pears for this. (Their crisp
appley-juiciness works so well.) Good greengrocers and speciality stores usually have them in season; keep the pears in the fridge until you are ready to use them, and serve this salad super-cold.
If you so wish, add a sprinkle of Gochugaru chilli flakes (infusionsforchefs.co.uk sell them), although I have chosen not to this time.
THE NOODLE OF THE SEA: JELLYFISH, PEAR AND CUCUMBER SALAD (SERVES 2)
2x 170g sachets of ready-to-serve jellyfish, drained and rinsed
½ Nashi pear cut into matchsticks (I leave the skin on), patted dry
½ cucumber, peeled, deseeded and sliced into matchsticks, patted dry
1 large white spring onion very finely chopped
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoons caster sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
I teaspoon sesame seeds
Salt and black pepper
Make the dressing first by mixing the rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil in a small bowl. Give it a good stir, taste and adjust if you prefer it sweeter/saltier and set aside.
Two hours before you want to eat, rinse and drain the jellyfish (discard the sauce packets that come with the jellyfish) and ensure it is damp rather than wet.
Add the jellyfish to a serving bowl large enough to contain two portions, and add in the matchsticks of pear and cucumber and the finely-diced spring onion. Toss them well to mix, cover, and chill in the fridge for two hours.
When you are ready to eat, heat a heavy-based frying pan over medium heat and add the sesame seeds, keeping them moving around the pan with a spatula until they are toasted golden brown. They will smell delicious. Remove immediately from the heat.
Remove the salad from the fridge and spoon over the dressing, then toss to combine. Finally, sprinkle over the sesame seeds and a little black pepper.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020