16 May, 2019
Destiny’s Child were singing “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly” back in 2001, and they were right. But now the time has come – or is approaching, at least. Jellyfish is going to be a huge hit in the food world in the coming years, according to a report this week by Sainsbury’s.
The Future of Food report, commissioned by Britain’s second biggest supermarket, and compiled with input from futurologists and plant scientists, offers a glimpse of what will be on our plates in the next few decades. One ingredient on the list that will have leapt out at squeamish diners is jellyfish.
Luminous and graceful, these gelatinous marine animals look like an art installation when they’re floating in the sea, but ashore they become a sloppy, translucent mess, resembling tangled parachutes or up-ended plates of cheung fun. Put another way; they don’t look like they taste good. The Sainsburys report recognises that, currently, they are a culinary “last resort”.
Jack Stein, chef director of Rick Stein restaurants, disagrees however. “I love jellyfish,” he says. “I first had it years back with my dad in a Chinese restaurant, where it’s always served cold and with a lot of sesame and chilli, and I liked the jellied texture; we don’t have that quite so much in British cuisine, aside from jellied eels.”
In Asian countries, jellyfish has been eaten for the last 1700 years, according to a study by Tokyo University of Fisheries, and is considered a delicacy. By the 1970s, Japan was importing between 5,000 and 10,000 tonnes a year (worth almost £20million) from the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Myanmar. It’s eaten, traditionally, boiled in a salad with rice vinegar, sesame oil, carrot and cucumber in Japan; in Taiwan it is served as an antipasto. One Asian company, Tango Jersey Dairy, even makes vanilla and jellyfish ice-cream.
“A fisherman is yet to come to the backdoor of a Stein restaurant in Cornwall with a bongo of jellyfish and I haven’t had the desire to pick one up on the beach and play around with it,” says Stein. “But in the future I can see it working nicely as a little snack before a main. It has an ozone-y, brine-y taste, with a texture that snaps in your mouth.
“It needs some acidity so I’d probably serve it with a cider vinaigrette made of rapeseed oil, for that mustard flavour, maybe a touch of Marmite and some toasted hazelnuts. It would also go really well with a Mexican smoked chilli paste,” he adds.
Foraging for jellies on the beach isn’t a great idea, because not all species are edible. Think of them as you would wild mushrooms: if you don’t know what you’re sautéeing, you could get into trouble. Like bees, they won’t sting once dead, but poisonous toxins need to be washed away before they’re prepared. Usually tentacles are cut away from the “bell” (the umbrella-like body), which is then cut into long slivers.
Rick Toogood, owner of Prawn on the Lawn in London and Padstow, where he and wife Katie also run Barnaby’s restaurant, can imagine it among the mackerel, turbot and brill on their seafood bar.
“I first ate it in China, in Guangzhou, when I was living there about 10 years ago,” he says. “The texture does take a bit of time getting used to – it’s similar to eating raw squid, which we don’t really do in the UK – and without soy sauce it didn’t taste of much.
“The flavour is similar to an oyster, but not as intense, which is why it has to be jazzed-up. Served as cubes in a part of a salad it was… challenging. A tempura version with a punchy dipping sauce could work.
Toogood believes that one of the reasons why westerners have yet to embrace the idea of jellyfish as food is the name itself.
“There’s just something wrong about the words ‘jelly’ and ‘fish’ next to each other. It might need to be rebranded, like pilchards were years ago. People love them now they’re called ‘sardines’.”
Once we get beyond the name and the unfamiliar texture, there’s plenty to recommend jellyfish as a food source. It is highly sustainable, given there are so many of them and they destroy so much other life in the sea. In 2014 they invaded a Scottish salmon farm, killing 300,000 fish overnight (and have also been responsible for shutting down power stations and ruining a US nuclear warship). Eating them could lessen their threat to other species, Australian scientists believe.
Another benefit for humans is that they’re rich in vitamin B12, magnesium, and iron, and low in calories. In Asia, they’re also associated with easing bone and muscle pain.
“I think there’s a lot of potential,” says Marco Torri, head Italian chef at Novikovrestaurant in London, which serves both Asian and Italian menus. “You could easily substitute it for cuttlefish and fry it with crunchy maki; or add it to a Thai soup with a little lemongrass. In Italian cooking, it could work in a risotto with squid ink, or cooked with artichoke in a dish that normally uses squid.”
Sanjay Dwivedi, culinary director of high-end Peruvian chain Coya, which has restaurants in London, Dubai and Monte Carlo, has already been on the phone to his fishmongers this morning. “I asked my guy in Cornwall for jellyfish and I swear to God he thought I was drunk,” he says.
“He can source the best Dover sole and turbot, but not jellyfish at least, not yet. We’re always open to new ingredients and I can imagine it stir-fried on a Coya menu. We live in a wild world.”
Waitrose in Bath is currently less wild. “Have you got any jellyfish?” I ask the fishmonger, and she laughs in my face.
“We don’t,” she smirks. “Can you eat that?” Not at the moment, it seems, but give it time.