Cold jellyfish salad

 Andreae Prozesky tries the jellyfish.

Why would a polite, mild-mannered food nerd like me circulate through her office, daring her eurocanadian co-workers to tuck into a big bowl of cold jellyfish salad?

Because Chinese New Year is coming, and I’m confronting the fact that, really, I don’t know a thing about Chinese food.

I can identify your basic stir-fry ingredients, and could possibly pick long beans, bitter melon, and lotus root out of a line-up, but that’s really only a level-three knowledge or so, out of a possible ten. I would probably know what to do with a pack of noodles (be they made of wheat, rice, or some variety of bean), and I could probably brew a half-decent pot of Chinese tea (apparently 80C is a good temperature for the water, in order to coax the flavour out of the leaves without damaging them), but that’s where it ends. I’m sort of familiar with Chinese ingredients, but I usually take them home and use them for something more Western in nature, red beans in a vegetable stew, or sesame oil on steamed asparagus. Call it fusion, I suppose.

Not that I haven’t eaten my share of food that labeled itself “Chinese.” Oh, the fried wonton wrappers and glowing crimson sauce that I ate at the now-gone Ports of Food as a teenager! Upon reflection, I don’t imagine that there was anything authentically Chinese about them. Nor do I think that fried white flour pastry and sticky red sauce can technically be classified as “food.”

There are two levels of Chinese food around here: the ubiquitous Canadian-Chinese restaurant food, which is really just familiar ingredients presented differently (beef and broccoli in little bits on a bed of rice, rather than a big hunk of beef and a few spears of broccoli served next to some potatoes), and then the authentic, home-style Chinese food, for which there are few European analogues.

Like the cold jellyfish salad.

So, again. Why the cold jellyfish salad? Because when I was at the Asian Variety on Water Street, asking the fantastic Tina and Marcus about real Chinese food, I mentioned that jellyfish just seemed too weird to me. Next thing I knew I was walking away with a foil packet of Feng Zheng Instant Natural Jellyfish and a mission: Just try it.

And it’s good! I wouldn’t expect something that looks so jelly-ish to be so crunchy. I feel like I’ve just had an iron shot, too. Which makes sense: the poetic product description on the package reads, “Instant natural jellyfish is a kind of seafood of high-protein and lowfat, containing indispensable trace elements, iodine and iron, to human beings, it has the unique refreshing, and crisp, and tender and smooth tastes of its own.”

This isn’t my first just-try-it mission this week. A few days ago I ate some tofu at Bamboo Garden (Duckworth and Prescott) that was so silken and cloudlike in texture that comparisons to Western food fail. Like the lightest, smoothest custard ever made, but cloaked in an intensely flavourful chili sauce. (I believe they serve cold jellyfish salad there, too, if you’re up for a taste-test.) And tonight I’ll be relaxing with a cup of chrysanthemum, honeysuckle and licorice root tea, as recommended by the very knowledgeable Hunyin (known to some as Tammy) at Magic Wok Grocery on Duckworth – it’s supposed to be lovely as a warming drink, and can soothe a sore throat, which would make it the perfect thing for a St. John’s winter.

While Chinese communities around the world celebrate their New Year, why don’t the rest of us make some mid-February resolutions to ourselves to think outside the beef-and-broccoli. For a smallish town, St. John’s has some pretty impressive imported food resources to draw on. I certainly don’t have the authority to sub-title another culture’s holiday (nor would I wish to), but those of us who aren’t Chinese might want to think of February 18, 2007, as “Try the Jellyfish Day.” Or, lest the jellyfish stocks run out, “Day to Eat Something New.” If you don’t know where to start, just pick a store or restaurant, introduce yourself to the staff and ask what’s good.

NOT JUST JELLYFISH

The Asian food shops downtown both carry lots of frozen, prepared foods. Dumplings are very popular right now: they symbolize wealth and prosperity for the coming year.

Although both Magic Wok Grocery and Asian Variety specialize in Chinese food imports, they also sell Japanese and Thai ingredients. For non-Chinese customers, these are the most popular grocery items.

One ingredient that traditional Newfoundland and Chinese cuisine have in common is the turnip (although Chinese turnip is a little more radish-like than a Newfoundland turnip is). According to the venerable Internet, the Chinese word for turnip also means “good omen.” Bamboo Garden has several turnip-y items on its menu.

Noodles are another popular and accessible Chinese food item for non-Chinese shoppers. When noodles are served at Chinese New Year festivities, they are never cut; long noodles are said to represent a long life.

Send your questions, comments, suggestions and invertebrates to dreae@thescope.ca