Last updated March 1, 2018 at 10:03 am
Coating jellyfish in ethanol results in a tasty snack that could change Western palates.
That’s the suggestion being made by a team of scientists led by Danish biotechnologist Mathias Clausen, which has discovered a new way to turn gelatinous jellyfish flesh into crunchy snack chips.
About a dozen species of jellyfish have long had a welcome place on tables in Asia. They are not the most nutritious of foods, containing about five per cent protein and almost no fat, and neither are they particularly flavoursome. Correctly prepared, however, they have an interesting texture and are used to add mouth-feel variety during meals.
Some, such as the cannonball jellyfish (Stomolophus meleagris) require careful preparation to remove toxins, but for others, including the jelly blubber (Catostylus mosaicus) and the moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), getting them ready for human consumption is a simple process.
It is also a long one. Once caught, the jellyfish are coated in a salty mixture of sodium chloride and alum, then left for a month. At the end of this period, they are washed to remove excess salt. The flesh has transformed from soft and squishy to something much firmer, often compared to the mouth-feel of pickled cucumbers.
Clausen became interested in the chemistry of the transformation process when he tasted jellyfish for the first time and was surprised by its firmness.
To understand how the change came about he and his team used two methods of high-end microscopy – two-photon, and stimulated emission depletion – to watch how the salts were affecting the filaments that made up jellyfish mesoglea gel, otherwise known as the jelly-like bits.
The team then interpreted their findings using a couple of theoretical approaches. The first, polyelectrolyte theory, posits that repeating polymer units separate in aqueous conditions, which changes their electrical charge and alters the viscosity of the liquid.
A second, related approach centred on the Flory-Huggins theory, a mathematical model that describes the thermodynamics of polymer solutions in which molecule sizes vary.
As a result of this analysis, the scientists decided to cover raw jellyfish in ethanol. The effect was slightly different to that of the salt solution, and much more rapid.
“We thus have created what can be classified as jellyfish chips that has a crispy texture and could be of potential gastronomic interest,” says Clausen.
And while dedicating time and resources to the quest to make a better jellyfish snack might seem at first blush to be a trivial pursuit, the scientists say its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
Demand for jellyfish flesh is increasing across Asia as traditional vertebrate fish stocks decline. The Danish team say its adoption in the West could help further reduce demand.
“As this is pioneering work, I think using tools available to us to tackle the science of good eating can open peoples’ eyes for a completely new scientific field,” he adds.