Are Jellyballs the Next Big Thing in Southern Cooking?
Get ready, because these harmless jellyfish are coming to a restaurant near you.
Given that they're one of our largest fishery exports by volume (after shrimp and crab, of course), you would think the South would hold more love for the cannonball jellyfish.
Also known as the cabbage-head jellyfish—and "jellyballs" when you find them on a menu—this harmless species of jellyfish is a culinary staple in Asia. Yet, despite their abundance on the Southeastern seaboard, Southerners have been historically reticent to dine on these seafaring blobs.
Why? Hanna Raskin of The Post and Courier, called jellyballs "bland at best." University of Georgia food safety professor Yao-Wen Huang described the texture of the salted and dried version eaten in Asia as a "cross between a potato chip and a stretched-out rubber band."
And they're not easy to cook. Because jellyballs are mostly water and collagen, too much heat can cause them to devolve into a gooey slime. But like most things, with the right technique and a creative mind, this unlikely creature can be quite delicious.
That was chef Matt Marcus's approach when he took over Atlanta's high-end Watershed restaurant earlier this year and decided to introduce jellyballs to the menu. Luckily, it was a gamble that paid off.
Atlanta Magazine recently caught up with Marcus, the first Atlanta chef to put fresh jellyballs on a plate, to learn about the growing effort to take this local delicacy mainstream.
He's found that like tofu, jellyballs absorb whatever flavor is added to them. And through plenty of experimentation, he figured out that frying and braising them low and slow can yield good results.
Marcus said his customers immediately "flipped" for his Georgia carbonara, which features jellyball noodles. He told Atlanta that he makes them by rolling and trussing the jellyballs and then dunking them in liquid nitrogen. Once firm, he's able to slice them like noodles. Next, he blanches them, and sautés them in butter with shallots. Finally, they're served "twirled up in the center of an Ossabaw hog consommé with a poached egg."
The problem with serving fresh jellyballs, as opposed to the dried and salted ones popular in China that have a two-year shelf life, is that their season is relatively short. Depending on ocean temperature, Atlanta reports that jellyball season runs from late fall to mid-spring, leaving Marcus and other pioneering chefs high and dry for the rest of the year. And for Marcus, attempts to use preserved jellyballs has failed spectacularly. "It's so salty, it blows out the palate," he told the magazine.
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But there is hope. The opportunity to introduce jellyballs stateside has inspired a new collaboration between Golden Island International, the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, and southern chefs like Marcus who are looking to dip their toes in the jellyball scene.
Their mission? To keep creative kitchens flush with jellyballs so they can find new ways to wow customers with the local delicacy.
"Thirty years ago, nobody was eating sushi or calamari," Terry Chuang, owner of Golden Island International, told Atlanta. "Now, it's everywhere."
And it's not just chefs and distributors who stand to profit from a jellyball boom. Jellyballing can help keep shrimpers in the green between brown and white shrimp seasons. If demand for jellyfish were to increase, so would the work for local fishermen.
Meanwhile, Marcus told Atlanta that he's eager to do his part from the kitchen. "You find a new product, and not many people are using it," Marcus says. "That's exciting. What's most exciting is to be able to use an indigenous product and keep some of my [shrimping] buddies in the water."