Mar 29, 2024 - Food and Drink

Fish-free seafood could land in Chicago restaurants soon

Sashimi-looking fish on top of banana leaf on a white plate.

At a recent West Loop dinner, AQUA Cultured Foods presented fish-free tuna (left) next to real tuna as a test. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

A Chicago startup could soon land fish-free seafood onto your plate.

Why it matters: Overfishing is decreasing fish populations and harming ocean ecosystems. Many conservationists, including those at Shedd Aquarium, recommend diversifying your seafood diet and reducing pressure on fisheries.

The big picture: Aqua Cultured Foods' products are part of a growing movement to create real-tasting meat and seafood substitutes, with innovations using everything from fungus to plant products and cell growth technology.

  • The West Loop company has worked for three years to create fish-like products via a patent-pending process using cellulose, an insoluble fiber found in fruits, vegetables and other plants.

How it works: Anyone who has ever home-brewed kombucha will be familiar with the layer of cellulose, called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), that grows on top. Aqua uses a similar method.

  • "We basically take sugar, water and nutrients, add our microorganism to that broth and let it sit in a temperature-controlled room for a couple of weeks," Aqua co-founder Brittany Chibe says, noting that a layer of cellulose grows in that solution.
  • "We put that cellulose through a pasteurization step and add a flavor system and a color system, so when you see our tuna, it essentially looks just like a tuna filet."

Between the lines: The products — which can be served as sashimi, ceviche, maki and crudo — cater to those who want to cut their meat consumption for health and sustainability reasons.

Comparable to real tuna and scallops, the Aqua versions will sell for about $27 to $28 a pound.

  • Chibe says they're focused on offering their product in restaurants because "70% of seafood is consumed outside the home."
Scallop-like fish in an open seashell
AQUA scallop-like products served with dill oil and crispy rice. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

The intrigue: The products are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but Chibe says they hope to secure approval this year.

  • Aqua says cellulose is safe to eat and already commonly used in foods.

With Aqua products, Chibe notes, you avoid seafood's potential mercury, microplastics and pesticides while enjoying a product packed with cellulose fiber and low in calories.

  • But you also miss out on seafood's beneficial omega-3s.
Whit bowl with sashimi looking cuts and avocado mouse.
Tuna tiradito with avocado mousse and kumquats at a private Bambola dinner. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

Thought bubble: I recently tried a few dishes using Aqua products at a private dinner in the West Loop's Bambola.

  • The nearly unadorned "tuna sashimi" struck me as too firm and bland, especially compared with the real thing served next to it. A brave but, at this point, unsuccessful gambit.
  • And the buttery texture and oceany flavor in the "tuna tiradito" still haunts me.
  • Yes, but: The "scallops" crudo with crispy rice and dill oil delivered delightful texture and taste.

What's next: Chibe says they expect to serve the seafood-less products in at least 10 Chicago restaurants by the fall.

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