Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 11:36 UK

Fish or foul? Chef wants jellyfish on menu


How to eat a jellyfish

Choosing to eat jellyfish is all about cultural attitudes, according to Carme Ruscalleda, a celebrated chef at work in the kitchen of her Michelin-starred restaurant next to the beach in Sant Pol del Mar, on the Catalan coast.

"Put jellyfish on the table in front of a European diner, and they'll say 'oh no, it's a monster from the sea, a nasty thing that stings'.

"Serve it to someone from Japan or China and they'll say it's the perfect garnish for a summer dish, something delicious and good for you", she says.

Ms Ruscalleda is particularly excited about the health-giving properties attributed to jellyfish.

"The Chinese," she says, "say it improves the cardio-vascular system, balances blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps the joints, is good for the skin. I sometimes joke that jellyfish can cure everything except a case of flat feet".

The texture's like fresh squid... It's fantastic!
Carme Ruscalleda
Catalan chef

She has just scooped a live blue and brown specimen, about 25cm (10in) across and caught in the sea nearby that morning, from a bucket and laid it in salt, where it will sit for two days in preparation for being eaten.

Unfortunately, she is not yet allowed to serve this European variety to her customers, due to the fact that the European Commission has not officially classified it as a foodstuff.

She does serve imported Asian varieties, but she is in the process of trying to find historical evidence that jellyfish were once eaten in Europe.

Failing that, it will be a matter of scientifically proving the edibility of her local variety - not that she is in doubt, having eaten it many times.

"The flavour of the Asian jellyfish is very salty," Ms Ruscalleda says, "and the texture is like cartilage."

"But the one we get here, because it's so fresh, tastes much more like the sea. The texture's like fresh squid or like percebes [a type of barnacle eaten as a delicacy in Spain]. It's fantastic!"

Cotylorhiza tuberculata, the species of jellyfish which Carme Ruscalleda wants to serve at her restaurant  (picture: Institute of Marine Sciences in Barcelona)
Cotylorhiza tuberculata is abundant and has no sting

Carme Ruscalleda might well be tapping one of the ultimate sustainable food resources. Ignored by humans in the Mediterranean, except when the stinging varieties are accidentally and painfully encountered by swimmers or by fishermen trying to clean their nets, there is anecdotal evidence that jellyfish are increasing steadily in numbers.

It would not be a surprise. Scientists have already established that jellyfish thrive in warmer waters, and sea temperatures are increasing.

Dacha Atienza, who runs a jellyfish research project at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Barcelona, says: "Global warming does have something to do with it."

"Here in the Mediterranean, we know that the coastal area has seen an increase in temperature of about two or three degrees in the last years. So that's a big change. And we know an increase of temperature can increase rates of reproduction of the jellyfish. They can breed twice in the same year instead of just once".

'Not weird'

The other reason why jellyfish are a sign of the times is the fact that we have fished out so many of their natural predators.

"Sharks, turtles and tuna are among them", Ms Atienza says. "But we know that many species of fish eat jellyfish too. We are inflicting big changes on our seas".

Part of her task is to classify coastal jellyfish in terms of how toxic their sting is, and to work with local lifeguards and the Red Cross to make sure bathers are warned when there are stinging jellyfish next to the beaches.

She is used to the reluctance of some local authorities to admit there is a problem, given the potential impact on tourism.

Dacha Atienza
Dacha Atienza says the jellyfish's natural predators have been overfished

Ms Atienza is supportive of the idea of eating Mediterranean jellyfish.

"I think it is a good idea to make use of something from the sea that has not been used until now", she says.

"We know that it is common in some Asian countries to eat them and I don't think it would be something weird here. The problem is the unreliability of the supply if you want to exploit them commercially.

"On our coast, you can get plenty of jellyfish one day and then see none for the next two weeks."

But she would like to see chef Carme Ruscalleda serve at least one local species, noting that there are big similarities with the Asian edible specimens.

"Here at the institute," she says, "we are open to co-operating with Carme Ruscalleda to establish them as an official new foodstuff. We can work with her, we have the animals here for her in our tanks."

Perhaps it will not be long before culinary Europe really does start to embrace the jellyfish.

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