Jellyfish In The Italian Kitchen
I entered Duo, a posh small eatery in the middle of the southern Italian town of Lecce, on a snowy January morning in 2022, carrying a polystyrene box containing two frozen, plate-size jellyfish. I was accompanied by Antonella Leone, a senior researcher at the Institute of Sciences of Food Production of the Italian National Research Council, who was in possession of a letter authorizing Chef Fabiano Viva to handle marine life legally.
At the door of the restaurant, Viva was waiting for us. She gave us a warm handshake and took the cooler. His aide started defrosting the jellyfish under the tap in a matter of minutes. Viva lit the stove, laced up his white apron, and added water to a pot.
Leone is a member of a small team of researchers that have spent the last 12 years researching Mediterranean jellyfish. They have been experimenting with chefs for the past seven years to find ways to pique public interest in eating the sea invertebrate.
Since we only sometimes saw jellyfish, Leone said, “the thought of eating one never occurred to us.” However, as a number of native and foreign jellyfish species proliferated—for example, in 2014, when the vast Gulf of Taranto was covered with 400 tonnes of barrel jellyfish per square kilometer—Leone pondered what they could do with them.
It’s difficult to get Italians to try jellyfish, just as it’s difficult to convince them to try pineapple on pizza. Octopus, sea urchins, and other marine life are consumed by southern Italians, while jellyfish are almost never consumed.
Because jellyfish have historically received little attention as a food source, it is illegal to sell them for human consumption in the European Union, which is why Leone showed up at Duo with a letter granting her authorization.
In China, where jellyfish have been consumed for about two thousand years, safety issues with jellyfish don’t appear to be an issue. (One of the most popular appetizers is chilled jellyfish that has been spiced with dark vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, chicken stock powder, and sesame oil.) According to a recent estimate, 19 countries collectively gather up to 1 million tonnes of the gelatinous sea creature, creating a $160 million global industry.
In 2015, Leone and her team started exploring ways to make jellyfish tasty and secure for Mediterranean cuisines, working with forward-thinking chefs like Viva.
An increasing number of individuals are wondering if eating jellyfish would significantly reduce the jellyfish problem and if they will become a sustainable and safe source of food as ocean fish populations continue to decline at alarming rates while jellyfish appear to thrive. Can jellyfish, however, be consumed by everyone?
Jellyfish are included in the large category of aquatic creatures known as “gelatinous zooplankton” by marine biologists. Some jellyfish, like the dangerous Irukandji box jellyfish, which is primarily found off the Australian coast, can have bells as little as cereal flakes, while others, like the huge lion’s mane jellyfish, can have tentacles as long as 36 meters. 34 different kinds of animals, including the leatherback sea turtle, and 124 fish species eat jellyfish, making them an essential component of marine ecosystems.
But things are not going well for jellyfish. Scientists have seen a concerning rise in jellyfish populations around the world since the turn of the century. It’s difficult to comprehend the causes of the occurrence, according to Lucas Brotz, a researcher at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia who has long studied jellyfish.
Read about imagining a world ruled by jellyfish
Not all jellyfish are growing everywhere, but Brotz observes a sort of sustained big increase in many parts of the world. Numerous factors, including the introduction of foreign jellyfish species into new regions and range extension as climate change and hotter waters, favor some species over others, could be causing this development.
Particularly severely affected areas by the jellyfish expansion include the Mediterranean Sea and the Japanese shore. Numerous jellyfish outbreaks have destroyed fish farms, choked power plants, capsized fishing boats by weighing down nets, and disrupted tourism by making swimming in the waters unsafe. Additionally, their existence may have an impact on the marine life they coexist with.
Leone’s husband Stefano Piraino is a marine biologist and an authority on jellyfish at the University of Salento in Lecce. He describes how massive blooms of jellyfish can hog all the plankton that other planktivores need: “Imagine [something the size of] the biggest oil tanker in the world traveling along the Mediterranean coasts to Israel, consuming all the plankton.”
Piraino joined Leone in her search for potential culinary applications for jellyfish after learning of their new availability in the Mediterranean.
With latex gloves on, Viva returned to Duo and carefully removed the Rhizostoma Pulmo jellyfish from beneath the running faucet. Unlike the dried jellyfish that are frequently used in Eastern cuisine, which must be rehydrated before use, they were still somewhat frozen. Viva started stirring the jellies as she added them to a pot of boiling water.
When Leone first started looking into how jellyfish could be preserved for later use or used as food or food additives, she ran across a major issue. The main technique for preserving jellyfish was to dehydrate them using the chemical alum, which was developed in Asia.
But she added that eating aluminum can be harmful and that most alum-treated jellyfish don’t adhere to the requirements set by the European Food Safety Authority. Therefore, Leone and her coworkers set out to develop a fresh, non-toxic method of drying edible jellyfish.
By substituting calcium salts for alum in the drying process, her team was able to overcome the problem. They next experimented with dried, fresh, and frozen jellies, converting them into mousse, meringue, spices, and thickeners.
In Leone’s lab at the Institute of Sciences of Food Production, where she conducts her studies with a team of seven people, gelatinous macrozooplankton is magically transformed into food and food-related goods. The large space is divided by a long testing table made of steel that has two shelves of clear jars and scales in the middle of it. Test tubes containing jellyfish extracts are stored on racks inside an industrial refrigerator.
But convincing Italians to think about substituting jellyfish for fish in soup is one thing; conducting research in a lab is quite another. There may be some chance for acceptance, according to a 2020 study led by Luisa Torri, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo.
In the study, 1,445 respondents were asked about their opinions on the prospect of eating jellyfish, with factors including age, behavioral patterns, and texture taken into account. The findings show that eating jellyfish is more common among young, well-traveled individuals with higher education levels and environmental sensitivity.
Since I fall into that category, I made an effort to be open-minded when Viva encouraged me to smell the white foam that was swiftly bubbling on the burner.
closed my eyes and I took a deep breath. I informed him, “It smells like oysters.”
You need to stop thinking about what you already know, Viva said. You must distance yourself from the memories of food. Is creating fresh food memories the secret to embracing strange food? If so, we’ll have to figure out a way to get jellyfish from the ocean to dinner plates.
Jellyfish fishing has been promoted as a solution to the jellyfish problem as well as a means to assist small-scale European fishermen who are having difficulty making a living due to depleted fish populations.
“An income source? When asked about fishing jellyfish, sixth-generation small-scale fisher from Tricase Porto Rocco Cazzato responds, “That would be amazing!” But even if the JELLYFISH was the last thing in the world to eat, I would never eat JELLYFISH.
Cazzato describes the agony of dragging in jellyfish-filled fishing nets that he was unable to sell. He claims that the jellyfish in his net would aid small fishermen like him in making ends meet if they were in high demand locally, similar to the scorpionfish that is frequently eaten.
Leone is striving to fill the knowledge gap, but very few researchers are entrusted with determining whether jellyfish are edible and safe for food.
Even though there are a rising number of jellyfish species in the world, only a small number are recommended for human food, claims Brotz. Furthermore, just because they appear to be more plentiful, fishing them won’t necessarily solve all of your problems. Brotz co-authored a paper in 2016 with the headline “We should not think that catching jellyfish would solve our jellyfish problem,” which sums it up perfectly.
The study warns against eliminating jellyfish from the ecosystem, even when there are too many of them because their impacts are unknown and may be harmful. For example, certain jellyfish serve as nurseries for young fish, and jellyfish can function in food chains as both predators and prey.