Jelly in Your Belly | How Eating Jellyfish Could Save Your Diet, and Save the Planet

These strange, slimy creatures are set to rule the seas - somebody has to eat them; why not us?

by Tabi Jackson Gee
Oct 17 2018, 2:32pm

In case you missed it, planet earth is in a bit of a fucking pickle. According to a slew of recent scaremongering headlines, we’re all doomed and should probably just give up now and start building bunkers.

Presumably you’ve read them too. Meat-eaters are single handedly destroying the planet. Dairy farmers are being likened to rapists. Rice production is devastating whole regions of Asia. Oh, sorry – you thought you were in the moral safe zone because you survive on a plant-based diet, didn’t you? According to the BBC, even avocados aren’t strictly vegan. We quite literally can’t win.

The global population is expected to grow to 9.6 million by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. So it figures that we need to think of some alternative meal options, fast. And that means getting creative – I don’t know about you but I’d rather never eat again than subject myself to some synthetic lab-produced meat replacement – all in the name of a daily protein fix.

Photo: Praveen Thotagamuwa via Unsplash

Look away now if you’re squeamish or a fussy eater. Because the answer to the world’s impending food apocalypse is small, ugly and slimy. No I’m not talking about crickets – please, entomophagy is so 2016 – this is something far more sinister. Jellyfish.

And jellyfish really are quite sinister. Not just because a handful of the 200-odd species haunting our oceans can kill you, but because of the havoc they set to wreak on the high seas. According to research undertaken by The Smithsonian, who call them ‘the next king of the sea’, their list of previous convictions is long, dark, and far-reaching.

In 1999, in the Philippines, about 40 million people lost power. It was Christmas, and it turned out the jellyfish had decided to celebrate by heading into the cooling pipes of a coal-fired power plant. In 2010, a ten-ton fishing trawler off the coast of Japan capsized and sank while hauling in a netful of 450-pound Nomura’s jellyfish. They also destroy salmon farms and travel in silent, slimy hoards that can reach up to 35 feet deep and 10 miles wide. But of course you’ve seen Finding Nemo.

Photo: Marat Gilyadzinov via Unsplash

They’ve blocked up sediment-removal systems, interrupting seafloor mining. And perhaps most alarmingly, in the Caspian Sea, they’re contributing to the extinction of beluga sturgeon – fine caviar, to you and me.

And as we continue to drown our oceans in plastic, and watch the coral reefs die right in front of our eyes, the jellyfish are only going to get stronger and more powerful. They thrive where other sea creatures don’t; oxygen-starved waters are some of their favourite spots. The so-called ‘dead zones’ of the sea are full of these strange little invertebrates.

They don’t need much to live off, which probably explains how they’ve stuck around for 650 million years. Made up of 95% water and 5% protein, they can taste, smell, and balance themselves. And like starfish and sea anemones, they don’t have brains, so you don’t have to feel too bad about eating them either. They’re basically soggy floating mushrooms.

Jellyfish salad. Photo: David Leo Veksler via Flickr

So rather than trying to figure out how farm crickets on a big enough scale to feed the whole planet, a growing number of scientists, and even chefs, are looking at how jellyfish could be farmed and used for human consumption. And there’s plenty to go around; a jellyfish can produce up to 45,000 unfertilized eggs per day. So during breeding season, to maximize the chances of fertilization, millions of jellyfish assemble for one big orgy.

“The answer to the world’s impending food apocalypse is small, ugly and slimy”

Insects and jellyfish are part of an everyday diet throughout Burma, China, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. But the Western world is rather more squeamish when it comes to unusual delicacies. Chef Chris Denney is trying to change that in his Notting Hill restaurant, 108 Garage.

“It’s a vehicle for flavour, it’s textural, it’s weird – and it is weird” he enthuses. “You build a relationship with your produce, with all produce you do, but this one is just like, it’s flavourless, it’s textural, but it’s got meanings to it, and there’s so much more scope to it – we’re only just scratching the surface.”

Photo: Courtesy of 108 Garage

At 108, Denney’s tasting menu sees jellyfish paired with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, thanks to a recent partnership. The absence of flavour in the jellyfish itself, which is served as ceviche, means it needs a subtle drink to accompany it, so the other flavours can come through. “It’s tweaked to the palate” he explains. “With champagne it’s perfect, we can add acidity, we can add peanuts, we can add mango, we can add coriander, it was easy.”

It was one of the first dishes to appear on the menu for the Ruinart collaboration, and for Denney it seemed like an obvious choice. “I thought, without even thinking ‘world hunger’, and the waste issue at the moment, there’s this thing which is there in abundance and we run away from on the beach. It’s there and we need to eat it.”

So next time you see jellyfish on the menu, you might want to give it a try. Get that delicate palate of yours used to eating something weird, wonderful, and slimy. Just try and forget me telling you that a jellyfish’s mouth also doubles as its anus.

Tabi Jackson Gee is a freelance journalist, based in London. Keep up with her on Twitter.