It’s a favorite dish among sushi lovers around the world, but your unagi nigiri may not be coming from the sea anytime soon.
Instead, the eel could be grown in the laboratory.
Japanese eel, or unagi, is famous for its rich flavor, but demand is so high that wild populations are now threatened with extinction.
By growing the delicacy from embryonic cells, Israeli startup Forsea Foods says it could provide the meat commercially from 2024 without harming fish populations.
Roee Nir, CEO and co-founder of Forsea, says this will “provide the consumer with a genuine seafood experience without putting more pressure on aquatic life.”
It’s a staple dish for any sushi lover, but your unagi nigiri may not be coming from the sea anytime soon. Instead, the eel could be grown in the lab (pictured)
By growing this delicacy from embryonic cells, Israeli startup Forsea Foods says it could commercialize the meat from 2024 without harming fish populations.
Nir adds: “Forsea is a pioneer in fusing high-quality traditional Asian cuisine with innovative technology to create the world’s first cultured unagi.”
This is the first time eel has been created in a laboratory and could potentially tap into the thriving Japanese market for this expensive meat.
Forsea Foods partnered with executive chef Katsumi Kusomoto to create two traditional Japanese dishes using lab-grown meat.
Kusomoto created unagi kabayaki, grilled marinated eel over rice, and unagi nigiri, eel sushi.
These eel dishes were once a staple in restaurants across Japan, but environmental concerns have made them much less common.
Kusumoto says: “Unagi is a long-standing favorite in Japan; however, its timeless appeal is undermined by a growing awareness among the Japanese population of the need to adopt a more sustainable approach.”
In 2000, Japan consumed 160,000 tons of eel, but that figure has now dropped by 80 percent.
Overfishing and habitat destruction have decimated the wild eel population, and as of 2018, freshwater eels are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
Eels are also extremely difficult to raise in captivity, creating a shortage that has caused prices to skyrocket.
Market prices for a kilo of eel more than doubled, from £12.30 (¥2,300) to £29.68 (¥5,553) between 2010 and 2023, according to monthly and annual reports from the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market .
Meanwhile, prices in restaurants can reach up to £250 per kilo.
Forsea Foods has teamed up with executive chef Katsumi Kusomoto to create two traditional Japanese dishes (pictured) using lab-grown meat.
To continue offering this traditional delicacy without further harming wild populations, Forsea has created a method to grow eel meat in the laboratory.
Most lab-grown meat is created by producing proteins and fat cells separately and then combining them into a scaffold.
The scaffold gives the cells a structure and helps them acquire a shape and texture similar to that of natural meat.
However, this process is slow and requires the creation of an additional scaffold for the cells.
Meanwhile, Forsea claims to have created a method that doesn’t need a scaffold to recreate the texture of meat.
Instead, the company uses pluripotent stem cells to create “organoids,” essentially miniaturized versions of three-dimensional tissues.
These organoids are then allowed to self-organize into tissues containing fats and proteins.
While the eel encounter is currently a prototype, Forsea says it is now ready to scale this process and could be ready for commercial launch in 2025.
However, Forsea is not the first company to produce a seafood product from lab-grown cells.
In May of last year, scientists at Israel-based Steakholder Foods revealed the first 3D-printed fish fillet.
The cells were grown in a lab to recreate a grouper cut and printed in layers to create the familiar flaky texture.
However, it may be some time before you can taste lab-grown sushi or fish and chips, as the UK does not allow the sale of lab-grown meat.
In August, Israeli company Aleph Farms became the first to seek regulatory approval to sell lab-grown beef cuts, but it could take two years to receive a response.
The government has promised to speed up regulation that would make it easier to approve new foods, but more details of this proposal have yet to emerge.