Turning an animal that can be extremely poisonous into something palatable? Now that’s science at work.
Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have developed a way to turn jellyfish into a crunchy crisp (or chip, as they describe it), with an eye to creating a market for aquatic snacks. There’s already a company doing it with salmon skin, so why not?
Jellyfish are widely eaten in Asia, although typically it takes several weeks to prepare them for a meal, as the body is marinated in salt and potassium. But Danish scientists can magic it into a crunchy treat in just a few days.
So how did these unusual mouthfuls come about?
Naturally, it started off by taking a bite of jellyfish.
Mathias P. Clausen, a postdoctoral fellow at the university, became intrigued by jellyfish when he chomped into the marine delicacy and experienced an unexpected crunch.
"Tasting jellyfish myself, I wanted to understand the transformation from a soft gel to this crunchy thing you eat," he said.
So he and a team put their science brains together and used two heavy-duty microscopes to discover how the long, thin tubes of cross-linked collagen that make up a jellyfish’s body change from a yielding rubbery texture to a hard and chewy product during preservation.
As a result, the team developed a way to turn the animals into the ultimate ready-salted snack. "Using ethanol, we have created jellyfish chips that have a crispy texture and could be of potential gastronomic interest," Clausen said.
“By transferring the alcohol, we can basically remove all of the water in the jellyfish, and then that means we have only the dry matter left. This turns out to have a crispy structure and forms a very dense network.”
Plus, this new method is a time-saver. Using chilled ethanol for two to three days on the jellyfish, then leaving it overnight at room temperature gives it the same texture as if the species was prepared traditionally, but in Asia this takes longer than a month, including two weeks of drying.
But jellyfish is not being offered up as crisps in Asia. Over there, it’s generally rehydrated in water overnight and shredded. In Japan and China, this is then traditionally served with vinegar as an appetiser.
Production is a multi-million dollar seafood business in the Far East, and companies even employ jellyfish masters who fine-tune the process of making them edible, with recipes kept a secret. The Japanese government is also pushing jellyfish as a component of sweets like caramels and ice cream.
Tackling the tentacles
However, it’s not all smooth sailing for the crisps. The texture, which is a bit gristly, still needs some refining to give it worldwide appeal.
“When we eat, we need to be stimulated in many ways with our senses. And one of the senses we like to be stimulated is our touch sensation in our mouth. If we eat a potato chip we need it to be crispy and not soft, even though the taste… is the same,” Clausen said.
So the team hopes to delve deeper to understand the structures within the jellyfish body and what eating them would feel like inside your mouth.
The university said this new scientific approach could help with making the jellyfish commercially viable in the food industry, as well as other foods not commonly found on the dinner plate.
"As this is pioneering work, I think using tools available to us to tackle the science of good eating can open people’s eyes to a completely new scientific field," Clausen said.
Healthy in more ways than one
Eating the tentacled beasts could be good for the body, as they are rich in nutrients, including vitamin B12, magnesium and iron, as well as low in calories – and the new technique for making the snack (with ethanol rather than deep-frying) keeps them that way.
We’re not short on jellyfish either.
As a result of overfishing, top predators like red tuna and sea turtles have been diminished, helping to create conditions where jellyfish bloom, according to a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
An increased number of jellyfish in the waters creates a vicious cycle. They increasingly prey on fish eggs and larvae, while competing for the same food source as the fish stock that is already being depleted by overfishing, the report said.
If the trend continues, jellyfish could supplant fish in the world’s oceans, according to some experts, who speak of “a global regime shift from a fish to a jellyfish ocean.” In Korea, jellyfish-shredding robots have been dispatched to clean the coast of the creature.
Jellyfish crisps could certainly take the sting out of the issue.