From the early days of all-things-kale to adopting acai bowls and bibimbap, western culture is no stranger to ‘fashionable’ foods. Thanks to a team of taste scientists in Denmark, jellyfish ‘crisps’ could become a healthier alternative to the humble potato chip.
They may not be your first choice of a healthy snack, but jellyfish are a long-standing delicacy in parts of Asia. To prevent them spoiling, fresh caught jellies are preserved in a month-long salting process. Salt is added and the water content is gradually reduced, turning their ‘jelly’ solid and rubbery. This can then be shredded and rehydrated at a late date, making a protein-rich treat.
Although the preserving process is a thousand-year-old tradition, it remains poorly understood. In order to get to the bottom of the cold-cooked jellies, a team of researchers put their taste buds to the test.
Studying the preparation of the jellyfish was a group of gastrophysicists from the University of Southern Denmark. Led by Mie Thorborg Pedersen, the team made two remarkable discoveries. In answer to their initial question, the team realised the process mirrors the tanning of leather. Skin is made up of large amounts of a protein called collagen. The body of the jellyfish, the ‘mesoglea’, contains a similar collagen-like protein and responds in the same way as skin to the salts used in tanning.
While experimenting with different salts, the team also uncovered a new way of preparing jellyfish. By soaking them in alcohol, the jelly bodies collapsed into wafer-thin crisps. Not only could these be made faster and without metal salts, they proved to be a delicious discovery.
Commercial jellyfish production has exploded in recent years. Growing from a few boats, it now represents a multi-million-dollar seafood business in Asia. The exact recipe for dehydrating the jellies is a closely guarded secret. In each factory, ‘Jellyfish Masters’ fine-tune each batch in search of the perfect taste. As a physicist, Pedersen took a slightly more scientific approach to their preparation.
Different gels respond differently in a variety of solutions. In alcohol, some expel their water and collapse completely. By treating the jellyfish as a gel, Pedersen discovered they too collapsed in alcohol. In her new method, Pedersen dropped the jellies into 96% ethanol to shrink them down. She then removed them from their boozy bath and let the alcohol evaporate overnight. Left behind was a paper-thin jellyfish crisp.
Traditional Asian dishes often use cannonball jellyfish or the enormous Nomura’s Jellyfish. Although a lower quality, they can reach a staggering 200kg. Pedersen and her team instead suggest using moon jellyfish, common in waters worldwide. As sea temperatures rise and oxygen levels drop, jellyfish thrive. The resulting ‘blooms’ can wipe out wild fish populations, but may prove an overlooked seafood resource.
With easier preparation, no metal salts and a better ‘mouthfeel’, jellyfish may soon drift into western culture. The team even suggests using a variety of different alcohols to give the ‘crisps’ a range of flavours.