Kelp burger. Sounds like something I'd find in Bikini Bottom; a Krabby Patty alternative. But, no, this is not SpongeBob fare. A non-traditional seafood company called Akua is following up on the early success of its Kelp Jerky in 2020 by launching this concoction of farmed kelp (think seaweed), cremini mushrooms, black beans, quinoa, crushed tomatoes, and pea flour.
There's a lot to admire about kelp and kelp farming or harvesting. Akua says that kelp is very environmentally friendly because it sequesters carbon. And kelp provides a lot of "good fats." Moreover, making kelp burgers is a low carbon process in part because it is a "zero-input" food; it just needs sea water and sunlight.
Other than the kelp, this burger seems like the kind of burger alternative you might find at a restaurant with a relatively progressive menu. Which makes this kelp burger approachable to someone like me who is looking to eat from a broader range of protein sources, and who is also interested in experimenting with different flavors. But how fishy is this farmed seaweed? I'm staring at a picture of long, yellow-green, slimy, thick stalks waving in the current. How unfamiliar is kelp's squishiness on the tongue?
The co-founder claims, in a Fast Company profile, that their kelp burger has no fishy taste. But if the main ingredient is seaweed, and most of the environmental and health benefits of the product derive from the kelp, I'm thinking this burger will be an acquired flavor and texture. This doesn't seem like the mild, salty crunch of seaweed in sushi, or the mellowed rubberiness of fried calamari.
Kelp burger and kelp jerky are just two of a growing number of products being offered up as food to address the real threat of accelerating population growth and the challenges this is creating to feed everyone. Out of necessity, we have put ourselves in a position of exploring the fringes of what the majority of us in America have deemed edible.
Out of necessity, 2 billion people around the world have been eating, no, downright enjoying insects forever. We in the U.S. are only starting to nibble at the idea of eating insects. (I explored entomophagy in my first Talk to Me About Food podcast).
Sustainability-minded chefs in this country are promoting nose-to-tail dining to both reduce food waste and to introduce, or reintroduce our finicky palates to the full range of animal cuts and parts that can be made not just palatable, but delicious.
Rotation risotto is a recipe (and a symbol in regenerative agriculture circles) created by Dan Barber, Chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants. It is an idea as much as a recipe. The idea is to approximate a rice-based risotto featuring cover crops; ALL of whatever is in season locally, not just the most precious crop. Instead of rice, this risotto uses grains like millet, barley, and buckwheat; stuff we don't value enough to eat ourselves but that are key to sustainable agriculture. Many are saying we don't have a choice but to reintroduce sustainable practices. In a virtual book club meeting the other day, Michael Pollan, who writes about the socio-cultural impact of food, stated that we've only got 60 harvests worth of soil left if we don't build up soil health and fertility. Sixty years! Out of necessity we will likely need to regularly eat more than wheat, corn, and rice.
Back to the sea. The space occupying 70% of the earth's surface.
"All the fish in the sea" is a poetic metaphor for plenty. Not so much anymore. Not for the prized fishes. You've already heard and read plenty about the plight of the oceans and most of the their inhabitants. And still, beyond the swaying kelp forests, there are many living things swimming the seven seas, or slithering about sea beds that are, and will continue to be served up as new seafood for us to consider.
The jellyfish might be one of them. It's a scourge. A shoreline pest that's multiplying all around the world as climates warm. A few months back I read an article in The Smithsonian about an intriguing effort to make jellyfish appetizing. The starting point is the preparation of the jellyfish. Chef Jozef Youssef, at Kitchen Theory in London, removes the tentacles, then cures, seasons, and cuts the jellyfish "fillet" into strips. The resulting, unique combination of crunchiness and springy chewiness is what makes this jellyfish "meat" stand out. There's more to the experience. While you chomp on it you listen to a soundscape - underwater bubbles, waves breaking, and crunching layered over dreamy synthesizer chords - while observing images of fish projected on your table. All to seduce the diner into relinquishing squeamishness.
Another thing that there's too much of is the sea urchin. Like the jellyfish, this spiny, spiky creature can also do damage, if you step on one. But more than that, it apparently mows down kelp, so you get a double whammy by harvesting sea urchins in order to harvest the seaweed. The most familiar use of sea urchin is as "uni" in sushi. I think we'll have to find other ways to prepare the sea urchin to make it a steady, tasty source of protein in our diet.
We don't love seafood - not the wide variety of possible food in the oceans anyway - the way other peoples do. If we must have our salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp, and clams, but their stocks continue to be depleted, we may at some point in the future be able to turn to seafood cultivated from cell cultures taken from these fishes. There are a handful of companies working on this right now. Finless Foods is trying to create bluefin tuna in the lab. Wild Type is attempting to do the same with salmon. This is not the stuff of science fiction anymore, but these well-funded start-ups haven't unlocked all the secrets of life yet. In the meantime, you can start adjusting your palate to plant-based seafood alternatives, like smoked salmon made from algae or carrots, or tuna derived from a special tomato species. There are quite a few companies working this space with real products on the market.
Or, you can start experimenting with what's on the fringes of what's socially desirable to eat today. Maybe a kelp burger with a side of fried jellyfish tentacles and fried urchin rings. Or, wash down a fistful of kelp jerky with a Mountain Dew to drown the fishiness.