Will A Hotter World Make Jellyfish Haute Cuisine?
The ocean is filled with delicious ingredients, but our favorite seafood items might not stick around on menus forever … thanks to climate change taking its toll on fisheries. As a result, scientists are thinking more and more about what the future of food is going to look like—what ingredients we should eat more, and what we should eat less. That could mean we’ll eat more items like kelp, oysters, and mussels, which are a great source of nutrients, since they can be sustainably harvested.
But there’s another seafood that’s being encouraged as a food of the future. But it’s a little more unfamiliar—and maybe surprising—to most of the world. It’s jellyfish. Although it’s a fairly common ingredient in several countries, like China and Vietnam, it hasn’t quite broken into the international market yet.
Guest host Katherine Wu talks with Agostino Petroni, a journalist based in Rome who reported on the topic for Hakai Magazine, and Dr. Antonella Leone, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, based in Lecce, Italy. They talk about the benefits of jellyfishing, what it’s going to take to catapult jellyfish into the international seafood market, and their favorite jellyfish recipes.
Source: The European Jellyfish Cookbook, Dr. Antonella Leone
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Agostino Petroni is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy.
Dr Antonella Leone is a researcher in the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production in Lecce, Italy.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.
KATHERINE WU: And I’m Katherine Wu. OK, Kathleen, for the rest of the hour, we’re taking a deep dive into seafood.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, that is excellent news because I love seafood. If we are ever at a party together, Katie, you can find me by the cocktail shrimp platter.
KATHERINE WU: Not if I get there first. And it’s true– the ocean is filled with delicious ingredients. But sadly, some of our favorite seafood might not be around forever thanks to climate change taking its toll on fisheries and all kinds of wild marine life. So scientists are thinking about what the future of food is going to look like, what ingredients we should be eating more or less of.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: And we’ve talked about this on the show before here at Science Friday. For the ocean, that could mean eating more items like kelp or oysters or mussels, which are all a good source of nutrients, and they can be sustainably harvested.
KATHERINE WU: And there’s another seafood that’s being encouraged as a sustainable food of the future. It’s just a little more unfamiliar and maybe surprising to most of the world. It’s jellyfish.
KATHLEEN DAVIS: I have to say, I have never eaten jellyfish before, and it’s never really crossed my mind as something that I could be eating.
KATHERINE WU: I’ll admit, I have heard of this being a thing because my parents have definitely eaten jellyfish. They’re from Taiwan. But I have not partaken myself. Jellyfish is actually pretty common in several countries in Asia, like China and Vietnam. But it hasn’t quite broken into most of the Western world.
Researchers in Italy are trying to change that. Here to tell us more about jellyfish cuisine are my guests, Agostino Petroni, a journalist based in Rome– he recently reported on this topic for Hakai Magazine– and Dr. Antonella Leone, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, based in Lecce, Italy. Agostino and Antonella, welcome to Science Friday.
AGOSTINO PETRONI: Hello.
ANTONELLA LEONE: Hello, good morning.
KATHERINE WU: Wonderful to have you both. So can you tell us what exactly is the argument for jellyfish becoming a food of the future?
ANTONELLA LEONE: More or less 10 years ago, we started to study jellyfish as a new resource for different uses. And we find that several species could be useful as a food. This was strange in our countries, but you know that jellyfish is largely used as food in Asian countries. And there is an increase of population of jellyfish. Most could be suitable as a source of food or food ingredients.
KATHERINE WU: Got it. So it sounds like this would kind of kill two birds, or maybe two jellies, with one stone. Jellyfish are taking over, and we could eat them as a sustainable resource for ourselves. Antonella, you had mentioned that there is already a little bit of jellyfish cuisine going on in certain Asian countries. Agostino, how much jellyfish does the world consume as a whole right now? And is that expected to increase?
AGOSTINO PETRONI: At the moment, there is an estimate of 19 countries that harvest about 1 million tons of jellyfish every year for a global industry worth about $160 million. Some say that this will grow, but it is not as easy as that because, for example, in the European Union, in the Mediterranean right now, jellyfish cannot be consumed and sold legally because they are not labeled as safe food yet. On this part of the world, especially in the Mediterranean and the European Union, we don’t know yet what the market could be. But as Antonella was explaining me, there is already some interest from some entrepreneurs that would like to take this on. Right, Antonella?
ANTONELLA LEONE: Yes. Yes, there is a lot of interest. Fishermen and local seafood industries are interested in exploit jellyfish, also because they represent, for fishermen mainly, an issue. They often are in the nets of fishermen, and they cannot be used, cannot be sold as a food. Many, many fishermen call us asking to be able to use this biomass. But also, chefs and restaurant owners are interested in them.
The problem is, as Agostino rightly said, jellyfish are considered novel food in Europe. They cannot be consumed and fished for food until the European Food Safety Authority will authorize the consume of this biomass.
KATHERINE WU: Got it. So just one piece of this bigger puzzle. All right, Antonella, let’s dive into some of the minutiae of actually cooking and eating jellyfish. So I understand that your lab is currently trying to learn how to do this in some optimal ways. What are some challenges that you’ve run into so far? And what have you learned?
ANTONELLA LEONE: Regarding the type of jellyfish, the species of jellyfish, that could be eaten and the studies about this, our role as the researcher is to study as much as possible the characteristics, the safety and quality characteristics, of different jellyfish and provide scientific evidence that several species can be eaten, can be consumed, provide, also, information about the processing for food production or processing for extraction of biotic compounds or to enhance characteristics of these products. That is our role as the researcher.
After that, when we identify the one or two species usable for food, we can contact the chefs and ask to improve or to check the feasibility of a new recipe, for example, by using the jellyfish as a main ingredient. And that was done with several chefs and published in a fun cookbook.
It is really important to study the biology and ecology of all jellyfish, including the species that are not human interest, because we need to know as much as possible about the biodiversity present in our seas. After that, we can study in particular for different topics. After that, we can transfer our knowledge to the stakeholder or public, as we are doing now, to communicate our results.
KATHERINE WU: Got it. But there is plenty of science to be had when you’re studying how to cook a jellyfish, how to preserve a jellyfish, even just how to prep a jellyfish for something that’s ultimately destined for a human stomach. Antonella, can you tell me a little bit more about how you can cook something that is 95% water like a jellyfish? And how do you preserve that for shipment and prep for cooking?
ANTONELLA LEONE: There is different processing. The traditional system from Asia uses alum, which is a mixture of salts of aluminum, to preserve jellyfish, to eliminate the water. This process is not so safe because aluminum can remain in the final products and can have a bad effect on human health. So we patented a new process so that uses calcium salts. This is more safe and produces a new product very different from the product from Asia. This helps, also, the chef to prepare jellyfish from fresh jellyfish.
KATHERINE WU: I’m Katherine Wu, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. If you’re joining us now, we’re talking about jellyfish and if we should be eating more of them.
What is it like to handle a jellyfish to prepare it? What does it feel like before you prepare it? What does it feel like after? And I’m even wondering, is it the texture of celery, an apple, chicken? What is this like?
AGOSTINO PETRONI: So with Antonella, we went together to one of the restaurants that work with her to try new recipes in Lecce. You know, Antonella went to the freezer of her lab and took two jellyfish that were frozen because we didn’t have time, and it was not planned to go out at sea to fish them. And with a letter accompanying the box, we went to the restaurant and met the chef. And the letter was to allow the chef to cook it legally as part of the research program.
The chef, first of all, let the jellyfish defrost under the running water. And after about 20 minutes, he started handling them. The first step that I saw was to put the jellyfish into boiling water in order to cook them. And as I described that into the article, I received, actually, quite a few messages from readers on Twitter and other platforms asking, OK, yes, you’re cooking it, but what about the venom that everybody is scared about?
And so since we are here all together, I wanted to ask Antonella what happens when you cook the jellyfish. And what happens to the venom that stings people? How do we get rid of that?
ANTONELLA LEONE: Yes, we have to know what is the kind of venom of each species of jellyfish in order to consider what kind of process is able to eliminate or quench the venom. In the case of the jellyfish that Agostino tried, it is [INAUDIBLE] venom that we demonstrated was not stable at high temperatures. So the treatment with high temperatures is enough to eliminate the venom. But this is not the same for all species of jellyfish.
AGOSTINO PETRONI: Ah, OK. Thank you. So which means, people at home, please don’t catch a jellyfish and cook it yourself, boiling.
KATHERINE WU: No risk of that from me, I promise. Well, so Antonella, I understand you’re the author of The European Jellyfish Cookbook– great band name, by the way. Both of you, tell me a little bit what it’s like to eat jellyfish. You know, first, what does it look like on the plate? And what sorts of recipes does it end up in? Sweet, savory, salty? What is all that like?
ANTONELLA LEONE: Jellyfish have a main characteristic, sensory characteristic, to be very salty. We made, also, a study– and now it is published– a study on the lexicon, on the sensory analysis of jellyfish. And we made the sensory analysis by professional panel. And the characteristic is to be very salty. And the other characteristic is the sea flavor, but more similar to, for example, seafood like oysters.
AGOSTINO PETRONI: Yeah, I agree. It did taste like oyster. When we went to the restaurant and the chef prepared the jellyfish in a kind of a tomato soup, I mean, it tasted just fine. It tasted great.
And it tasted fishy, of course. If you are a fan of fish and chips, so you’re looking for a fish which doesn’t really taste like fish, then this might be a little bit of a problem when you try the jellyfish because it really tastes like the sea. But if you like, instead, kind of like stronger flavor, you might appreciate jellyfish as well.
And what was kind of interesting is that it is pretty crunchy, like– I don’t know, like a calamari. When you fry calamari and you bite into it, it’s kind of like that or like a piece of fat from a steak, more or less. Yeah. That’s the texture. But yes, and of course, one of the dishes that I tried was the fried jellyfish. But of course, as many of the people I interviewed that tried fried jellyfish told me, anything that is fried is good.
KATHERINE WU: I can relate to that. So I’m hearing about some crunchy, salty, fishy, oyster-ish food, and it’s delicious deep fried. I’m certainly curious. Agostino, say we get a lot of people interested in this, and say the jellyfish market really takes off. Could there be a downside to that? Could we end up overfishing jellies?
AGOSTINO PETRONI: Well, there are some cases where this actually happened. As I mentioned in the article, this actually happened in Mexico, where fishermen turned to fishing jellyfish because there was high demand from Asia. And all of a sudden, they overexploited the stocks of those jellyfish.
ANTONELLA LEONE: Some colleagues consider jellyfish more sustainable of other fish or seafood because we catch only the adult stage, because jellyfish have two stages. One is the adult stage that is the jellyfish, and one is the polyp stage that remains on the bottom of the sea and is able to produce more jellyfish. But this is not– it is not demonstrated that all jellyfish– the fishery is sustainable in all conditions. So we have to be very careful when we talk about sustainability because we need before to study the life cycle of each involved animal and the ecosystem in which the animal is and make the studies along the years in order to consider how much we can fish of this particular species in order to maintain the species for the next generation.
KATHERINE WU: Right. And certainly, human practices that have led to overfishing for other species and human activities that have led to climate change are part of what got us into this situation in the first place. So we can’t afford to make those same mistakes.
Well, I think that is all we have time for. I really hope I get to try jellyfish one day. But thank you both so much for joining me.
AGOSTINO PETRONI: Thank you so much, Katherine.
ANTONELLA LEONE: Thank you.
KATHERINE WU: Agostino Petroni is a journalist based in Rome. He recently reported on this topic for Hakai Magazine. You can find a link to the story on our website. Dr. Antonella Leone is a researcher at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, based in Lecce, Italy.