Throwing a 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Party: The Menu From the Book

First published in 1870 by Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea continues to be a wonderful adventure novel almost 150 years on. Captain Nemo, the book’s antihero and captain of the Nautilus, disdained the world above the sea, so he used only products from the ocean, including food, clothing, and even tobacco.  Throughout their stay on board the Nautilus, Professor Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and the Canadian whaler/master harpooner Ned Land ate meals from an array of marine life. “My cook is a clever fellow, who excels in dressing these various products of the ocean.” 

For ethical reasons, many of the meals mentioned in the book should not be recreated. However, readers will delight in the rich descriptions of the food, such as the process of chopping down the sago palm for flour, and various notes about the native names for fish and animals.

If you are hosting a 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea dinner party, use the book’s list of foods to inspire your own tasting platters of locally available seafood, or exotic tropical fruits as mentioned in the Torres Strait chapter.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was translated from French to other languages, so there are several English variations of the original book. I worked from two English translations, so two descriptions are provided where those versions vary. Many food menus that I post succinctly use single words. For 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, on the other hand, it made better sense to quote the original translation to give the context of the rather unusual meals.

  • oysters
  • mussels
  • saddle shells [saddle oysters]
  • Cockleshells [cockles]
  • white venus clams “fat white venus shells”
  • “variously colored comb shells with gill covers”
  • date mussels “with a peppery flavor”
  • several fish “delicately dressed”
  • surmullet served with puff paste “the liver of which, prepared by itself, was most delicious” [Note: Surmullet is a red mullet, a species of goatfish.]
  • fillets of the emperor-holocanthus, “the savour of which seemed to me superior even to salmon.”  [Alternative translation: loin of imperial angelfish]
  • different sorts of seaweed

Ned struggles with the lack of food and drink he is used to– he wishes for fresh venison (which he doesn’t get)– as is seen in the following quotes. With some of the following foods, you might feel the same as Ned!
“There was neither bread nor wine. The water was fresh and clear, but it was water and did not suit Ned Land’s taste.”
“This shortage of wine, bread, and meat isn’t suitable for an upstanding Anglo-Saxon, a man accustomed to beefsteak and unfazed by regular doses of brandy or gin!”
“Under those trees land animals loaded with cutlets and roast beef, which I’d be happy to sink my teeth into.”
“I do not say that fish is not good; we must not abuse it; but a piece of fresh venison, grilled on live coals, will agreeably vary our ordinary course.”

  • filleted shark
  • beef steaks from seadogs
  • turtle- turtle is served throughout the book. Fillet and liver
  • dolphins’ livers “which you take to be ragout of pork”
  • preserve of sea-cucumber
  • preserve of anemones
  • cream, “of which the milk has been furnished by the cetacea, and the sugar by the great fucus of the North Sea” [Notes: Cetacea can mean whales, dolphins, or porpoises. Fucus is a brown algae.]
  • turtle soup “made of the most delicate hawksbills” [Note: Hawksbills are a critically endangered sea turtle. Interestingly, the hawksbill consumes venomous cnidarians (like jellyfish) with the result that their flesh can become toxic. Not a good idea for a soup! And yet sea turtles have been eaten as delicacies in China since the 5th century BC.[noted from Journal of the American Oriental Society via  wikipedia]]
  • slices of sea-cucumber

“Our drink consisted of pure water, to which the Captain added some drops of a fermented liquor, extracted by the Kamschatcha method from a seaweed known under the name of Rhodomenia palmata.”
[Notes: Rhodomenia palmata (which I assume is Rhodymenia palmata) is a red alga, commonly known as dulce (available from health food shops online). It grows in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Kamschatcha method, may come from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, located on the western side of the Northern Pacific Ocean.]

  • gulls or sea mews
  • turtle eggs  
  • Dugong meat 
  • Sterna nilotica [Note: a bird, now known as Gelochelidon nilotica, a gull-billed tern]
  • Nile duck 
  • Tapiro wrasse ”they’re enthusiastic eaters of marine vegetables, which gives them an exquisite flavor; hence these tapiro were much in demand by the epicures of ancient Rome, and their entrails were dressed with brains of peacock, tongue of flamingo, and testes of moray to make that divine platter that so enraptured the Roman emperor Vitellius.”
  • Two to three casks of whale milk, some to be made into butter or cheese
  • Sheathbills

“Large quantities of bacon were trailed in the wake of the ship, to the great satisfaction (I must say) of the sharks.”

  • Antarctic rabbitfish “I sampled its flesh but found it tasteless, despite Conseil’s views, which were largely approving.”
  • seal liver 
  • geese
  • ducks
  • electric ray — “Which he did [eat] that same evening, but strictly as retaliation. Because, frankly, it tasted like leather.”
  • Manatees, to be dried and stored as red meat

Food from Torres Straits

During their trip on the Nautilus, the Professor, Conseil and Ned are allowed to forage for food on an island in the Torres Straits, located between Queensland, Australia and Papua New Guinea (Chapter 20). The food mentioned is worth paying attention to for your 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea dinner party.

  • fresh coconut milk and coconut meat
  • bananas “This delicious produce from the Torrid Zones ripens all year round, and Malaysians, who give them the name “pisang,” eat them without bothering to cook them.”
  • jackfruit
  • mangoes
  • pineapples
  • palm cabbages
  • small beans “that I recognized as the “abrou” of the Malaysians”
  • yams
  • bread-fruit pie (Alternative translation: breadfruit pasta).

“Conseil and I chose the best fruits of the bread-fruit. Some had not then attained a sufficient degree of maturity; and their thick skin covered a white but rather fibrous pulp. Others, the greater number yellow and gelatinous, waited only to be picked.”
“These fruits enclosed no kernel. Conseil brought a dozen to Ned Land, who placed them on a coal fire, after having cut them in thick slices…”
“It is not even bread,” added he, “but a delicate pastry.”
“After some minutes, the part of the fruits that was exposed to the fire was completely roasted. The interior looked like a white pasty, a sort of soft crumb, the flavour of which was like that of an artichoke.”
“I’ll make a fermented batter from its [breadfruit] pulp that’ll keep indefinitely without spoiling. When I want some, I’ll just cook it in the galley on board–it’ll have a slightly tart flavor, but you’ll find it excellent.”

  •  sago flour

“Ned Land knew how to handle these trees [sago palms]. ~ He began by removing from each trunk an inch-thick strip of bark that covered a network of long, hopelessly tangled fibers that were puttied with a sort of gummy flour. This flour was the starch-like sago, an edible substance chiefly consumed by the Melanesian peoples.”
“Later he would extract the flour by sifting it through cloth to separate it from its fibrous ligaments, let it dry out in the sun, and leave it to harden inside molds.”

  • white pigeon and ringdove (roasted over a blazing fire). “Nutmeg, on which these birds habitually gorge themselves, sweetens their flesh and makes it delicious eating.” “They taste like chicken stuffed with truffles,” Conseil said.
  • bread from the artocarpus [artocarpus includes breadfruit and jackfruit]
  • grilled wild pig cutlets “bari-outang”
  • rabbit kangaroos “What excellent game, especially in a stew!”
  • sago pasta
  • fermented coconut liquor 
  • kangaroo pie
  • honey

“Naturally enough, the Canadian wanted to lay in a supply of honey, and it would have been ill–mannered of me to say no. He mixed sulfur with some dry leaves, set them on fire with a spark from his tinderbox, and proceeded to smoke the bees out. Little by little the buzzing died down and the disemboweled hive yielded several pounds of sweet honey. Ned Land stuffed his haversack with it.”
“When I’ve mixed this honey with our breadfruit batter,” he told us, “I’ll be ready to serve you a delectable piece of cake.”
“But of course,” Conseil put in, “it will be gingerbread!”

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