Gelatinous Junk Food – Can Jellyfish really be made into Crispy Chips?

When you a read an abstract entitled “The Microscopic Structure of Crunchy and Crispy Jellyfish,” there are some pretty immediate questions. My first one: how do you go from an animal that is 95% water to a crispy texture?

Danish gastrophysicist Mie Thornsburg Pederson has admitted it is “embarrassingly simple.” Just take a jellyfish, perhaps a common species such as moon jellies (Aurelia aurita), soak in 96% ethanol for a few days in the fridge, place on a baking sheet and dry at room temperature. That leaves you with a crunchy jellyfish chip!

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Mie T. Pederson holding her jellyfish creation.

The physicist’s trick – treat these animals more like ‘jelly’ rather than ‘fish’. By treating jellyfish as a gel rather than an alternative fish product, these researchers could observe how the jellyfish filaments change from rubbery to crispy. This is pretty different from how jellyfish have been consumed for hundreds of years. Eating jellyfish may be off putting to the western palate, but jellyfish, such as flame jellies (Rhopilema esculentum), have been consumed by Asian cultures for quite a while. Typically, jellyfish are processed in a similar way to tanning leather; animals are soaked in salt and alum for months before obtaining extremely chewy pieces with a crunchy middle. That inner, crunchy texture is what inspired Pederson to look into creating a crispy jellyfish chip.

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More conventional jellyfish dish. From geniouskitchen.com.

The actually culinary features of jellyfish fit into a relatively healthy lifestyle. Jellyfish are low in calories, low in fat, and have some protein and nutrients like Vitamin B12 and iron. Using Pedersons’s process, these chips are also low in salt. And since the process uses alcohol, there is the potential for flavored jellyfish chips in the future. Whiskey jellyfish crispies anyone?

And there are enough jellyfish to go around for everyone to try if these chips become more widely available. As the climate is changing and the ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic, many researchers believe the world’s oceans may be moving towards a jellyfish-dominated ecosystem. Jellies are not overfished like other sea food, and they are able to tolerate a larger range of salinities, temperatures, and pHs. Previously they were believed to be trophic dead ends in most marine systems, but more recent evidence has shown that many species eat jellies. Since there are certainly enough jellyfish in the oceans right now and potentially more in the future, they are an attractive and sustainable food product candidate.

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An example of how beautiful a jellyfish dish can be from Danish Chef Kristoff Styrbæk! From npr.com. Courtesy of Kristoff Styrbæk.

Jellyfish have huge population spikes, called blooms, that may have grown in frequency over the last few decades. Unfortunately, jellyfish were not considered an “important animal” for tracking, so no global records of jellyfish catch and bycatch are available to track populations over time like in most fisheries products. The other issue with tracking jellyfish populations is that the jellyfish most people think of is really just one stage in the life cycle of most of these animals. Called the medusa, the rounded, free-swimming stage is normally preceded by a benthic polyp stage, which can be only a few millimeters in size (even for the larger Lions’s Mane (Cyanea capillata) and Sea Nettle’s (Chrysaora sp.)).

History has shown that our, that is human, stomachs have been the direct cause of many overpopulated species going extinct. But will jellyfish be the next Steller’s Sea Cow or Passenger Pigeon?

Oh, and don’t worry about the venom. All of the venom is released before processing. Moon jellies like those used by Pederson and most of the jellies consumed around the world are generally not that dangerous to humans anyway. Processing from alcohol or soaking in salts also denatures (i.e. destroys) any toxins leftover. I would worry more about the dead jellies on the beach than any that come on your plate.

Check out a video of Pederson describing her work while proudly displaying her jellyfish food product, and a few live jellies as well.  And check out the paper in International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science.

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