Pickled jellyfish wrapped with fried tofu in a perilla leaf is definitely not a traditional Hanoian delicacy as the dish originated in coastal areas.
However, every year, during the cool late springtime and early summer, Hanoians find themselves craving raw jellyfish dipped into mam tom – savory, funky shrimp paste.
A gift from the sea
In late spring, Bich, a snack seller at Mo Market, an ancient fresh market in the capital, starts arranging some small stools around plastic tables.
She carefully puts a ceramic pot containing transparent, reddish water in front of the stall.
It is now the red jellyfish season which local culinary connoisseurs have been waiting for.
“Red jellyfish here. I sell red jellyfish,” Bich enthusiastically introduced her specialty to market goers.
“Should you give it a try, helping me to start a prosperous day?” she offered, putting baskets of herbs, namely Vietnamese balm and perilla, next to dishes of perfectly grilled tofu – crunchy from the outside, soft, juicy from the inside – and a plate of sliced coconut pieces.
Pickled red jellyfish is among the staples of Hanoi’s cuisine.
One may put a leaf of perilla on one hand, layer it with a slice of coconut, herbs, some pieces of red jelly, wrap them up, and dunk them into a tiny bowl of shrimp paste.
Except for the dipping sauce, each of the ingredients does not have a very impressive taste.
However, their combination gives off a fresh feeling and strange texture, surprising diners and urging them to have another bite.
Fishermen in the coastal localities of Hai Phong and Quang Ninh catch jellyfish then soak them in special water along with roots and barks of bruguiera, a type of mangrove trees.
The pickling process helps jellyfish eliminate inner water, makes them crunchier, and gives them a glossy reddish color.
|A complete serving of red jellyfish always comes with shrimp paste as dipping sauce. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre|
An affordable delight
At noon, a frequent guest of Bich paid a visit to her stall, ordering a portion of raw red jellyfish.
First things first, Bich put a tiny bowl of shrimp paste in front of him.
The tempting, funky smell plays as an introduction for the culinary feast coming next.
Grabbing a block of grilled tofu, she cut it into smaller pieces, perfect for them to be properly wrapped in perilla leaves.
Jellyfish came last as she had to choose the part that fitted his preference.
Bich’s knife is made of a piece of bamboo – a Vietnamese ancient cutting tool specialized for soft food.
As she gave her guest a basket of herbs, Bich told him to enjoy the dish slowly.
According to her, the jellyfish season comes once a year, why do not diners enjoy it to the fullest?
“The changing weather tires me out," said the guest.
"Such a comfort it is to have crunchy jellyfish with tofu, coconut and herbs.
"Having a sip of rice wine, I feel so much better.
"This dish is an affordable delight for all.”
Our ancestors ate jellyfish that way
For Do Thi Thai, a picky home cook, it has to be tentacles and bell margins which offer the best texture.
“Those parts may be not very good-looking yet the quality is top-notch,” she said while asking Bich to give her a piece of lime.
Squeezing lime juice into shrimp paste, Thai whisked the dipping mixture up to give off its signature smell then topped it with some slices of red hot chili peppers.
Thai has been addicted to red jellyfish since she was little.
Although she lives far from Mo Market, in the red jellyfish season, she has to come there many times to enjoy the dish.
Thai said the way it served was simple and witnessed no change over time.
"Our ancestors ate red jellyfish that way and we follow suit," she said.
The dish can now be found in several lanes of Hanoi’s Old Quarter or ancient fresh markets.
|A red jellyfish stall in Hanoi’s Hang Chieu Street is among a few shops still offering the dish. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre|
Light and fresh, red jellyfish is a food designated for the changing weather in late spring, early summer.
It would be a pity if one of Hanoi's culinary staples only remains in memory one day.