Kashrut, the set of rules that govern which foods are forbidden to be eaten by followers of the Jewish faith, is complicated, with all sorts of nuances and caveats. But when it comes to shrimp, it’s simple: “Whatever in the water does not have fins and scales is abhorrent to you,” the Hebrew book of Leviticus reads. But the Jewish Bible could never have imagined a day when technology and business would be able to summon forth a food that looks like shrimp and tastes like shrimp, but isn’t a crustacean at all.
Helping observant Jews enjoy seafood wasn’t what Dominique Barnes, the CEO of New Wave Foods, set out to do when she decided to create a shrimp alternative. “Shrimp is the No. 1 consumed seafood in the U.S.,” says Barnes, “and it’s also the king of all the problems.” For a tiny animal, shrimp drains a massive amount of environmental resources. Pound for pound, it has a carbon footprint 10 times that of beef. And farming the stuff is linked to the destruction of mangroves, a key ecosystem and fish nursery, as well as a vital defense against ocean flooding from monsoons and tsunamis. Add to that the industry’s persistent problem with human slavery, and shrimp might be our biggest dietary sin.
Barnes grew up in love with the ocean in landlocked Las Vegas. So she got creative and found a way to make a living by managing several of the giant fish tanks that decorate casinos and restaurants on the Strip. She eventually made her way to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in San Diego, where she learned the multitude of problems facing our overfished, polluted oceans. She was determined to solve one of them. So she partnered with Michelle Wolf, who has a background in materials science and biomedical engineering, to create a shrimpless shrimp that people would actually eat.
The team tried several different products to get the texture and taste right, but early versions turned out like a gelatinous cube. The breakthrough came when the New Wave Foods team considered that a certain type of red algae in shrimp’s diet give them their distinctive pink tint, as well as some of their flavor. Why not go straight to the source and eat the algae, instead of the shrimp? Algae, after all, are sustainable—easy to grow and easy on the environment. “Algae is super cool,” Barnes says.
After committing to red algae, the startup went through several iterations in the lab to get the texture, taste and nutrition profile right. The result is a product New World Foods calls Shr!mp. The recipe is a work in progress; the team hasn’t perfected the protein content, for example. “Shrimp is known to be high-protein and low-fat, so it’s very popular with people who are health-conscious,” Barnes says. “Our goal was 24 grams per serving.” The result is a shrimp substitute good enough that Google San Francisco ordered some for its cafeteria in March. New Wave Foods can currently make its fake shrimp for about $16 a pound and hopes to get the price closer to $12 soon to be competitive with what you would pay for the real stuff. Even better: The lab-created shrimp is “vegetarian, vegan and also, to our surprise, kosher,” Barnes says.
Silicon Valley biotech startups and rabbi-approved kosher foods may seem worlds apart, but another entrepreneur sees a chance to bring them together. L’Chaim Sushi's founder, Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky, sees a wave of changes coming to food, and he wants to know how the engineered food of tomorrow will fit with his traditions, which go back millennia. “What happens if you take a cell of an animal, and you grow it in a lab? Is that still meat?” he asks. If it’s not, the faithful might, for the first time, get to sink their teeth into a cheeseburger, a dish that normally violates the kosher rule prohibiting the eating of meat and dairy together.
Kosher is a designation that’s growing faster than organic and now includes a variety of products not typically associated with Jewish cuisine. “Take a look at the Sriracha,” Shandrovsky says, pointing to a small circle with a K on the label. “That’s a kosher symbol.” The reason for the growth, according to Shandrovsky, is people can trust that kosher food comes from a controlled environment without cross-contamination—important with the growing prevalence of food allergies. L’Chaim Sushi has found a home in San Francisco catering to tech giants that want inclusive menus. Until now, shrimp was not on offer, for obvious reasons. But before becoming devout as a teenager, Shandrovsky tasted shrimp, and he remembers. “Shrimp is delicious,” he says. So he tried the New Wave Foods shrimp substitute. Shandrovsky saw a good fit and a great opportunity.
In order to give her faux shrimp the kosher seal, Barnes traveled to L’Chaim’s kitchen, situated in a synagogue in western San Francisco, and made a batch in front of a group of rabbis, who certified the end result as kosher. As the company gets bigger and finds new production facilities, it’ll have to make sure its process doesn’t have issues like cross-contamination to keep the certification. The rabbis, some of whom had never tasted real shrimp, gathered around to try it, and “you can see on their face this excitement,” Barnes says. They ultimately placed an order for 15 pounds of Shr!mp.
Barnes got to see her food in action at a party at Indie Bio hosted by JP Reyes, a Google chef who hosts pop-up meals around San Francisco. True to the tech scene’s diverse culinary tastes, the evening featured a certified kosher menu of vegan Filipino dishes. The appetizer was New Wave Foods popcorn Shr!mp, served with a spicy dipping sauce and edamame.
For many of the diners, who keep kosher, it was the first time they had tasted something like shrimp. “This is oddly strange but oddly delicious,” a 10-year-old girl said.