With nowhere to go and nothing to do, most of us have dived into some unexpected, weird and even tedious food trends over the last year. Between exhausting our arms by trying to frantically whip up Dalgona coffee, and trying to perfect baked feta pasta because it’s what all the cool kids are making on TikTok, we’ve crashed, burnt, cleaned and cut our way to learning new recipes.
But if you thought “vegan chicken” made with only flour and water was outlandish, there’s another meat-free, fat-free and possibly taste-free fried dish that will blow everything else out of the water. Quite literally. Say hello to deep fried water. Yes, the world is weird and people are strange.
You’d think deep fried water is just a fancy word for boiled water, or at the very least an easy dish to scoop out. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Made using a chemical compound called calcium alginate—a gelatin-like substance made from chemicals like aqueous calcium chloride and aqueous sodium alginate—that essentially binds the water in a liquid membrane, deep fried water first surfaced on the internet back in 2016. Its earliest online existence can be traced back to YouTuber, chef and fried food aficionado Jonathan Marcus, who coated the water in flour, panko crumbs, and eggs (though the latter is of course optional if you’re vegan), and fried 12 globules in peanut oil for an event befittingly called The San Francisco Stupid Sh** Nobody Needs And Terrible Ideas Hackathon.
Five years later in a world completely changed, YouTubers are picking up where Marcus left off.
“First of all it’s surprising that you can turn water into an edible dish, and it’s a little bit comical to fry it after,” James Orgill, a chemical engineer and YouTuber who runs the channel The Action Labs told VICE. “It seems ridiculous to say, even impossible.”
In fact, deep frying water isn’t just an offbeat activity, it’s also a potentially dangerous one. Given that water and oil don’t mix together, a small leak from the water globule can create a big splash...of scalding oil that explodes everywhere. But Orgill, whose achievements include freezing an electric spark in solid ice among other things, was up for the challenge. So, some time in January, he deep fried water and got it right on his first attempt.
For Orgill, deep frying water was a way to help break down chemical compounds for his audience, who often look to him for experiments that explain scientific theories. “There were a lot of cooking channels doing it, but nobody seemed to be talking about the chemistry behind these edible polymers, which I used sodium alginate to make,” he said. For Orgill, whose experiments include everything from testing out what it feels like to drive a car on a different planet to lassoing houseflies, deep-fried water was an attempt to strike a balance between viral content and a science class. “It tasted really gross though. There’s no flavour, and it just tastes kind of salty and slimy.”
A weird food option that demands your inner geek to shine through, deep fried water has also sparked a flurry of other fried liquids: from Kool Aid to dry ice. It’s also the ideal trend for an increasingly absurd world in which we’re bored enough to try anything once.
This is one of the major factors behind why Eitan Bernath, an 18-year-old chef, YouTuber and TikTok creator with more than 4 million followers, was so attracted to the food trend—though calling it “food” is a bit of a stretch, we agree.
“Since I was a little kid, we’ve always had oil on the kitchen stove, just in case we needed to deep fry something. So when my followers told me about deep-fried water, at first I thought they were joking,” Bernath told VICE.
Bernath, who is also the culinary correspondent on The Drew Barrymore show and one of the only TikTok chefs to gain a television role, was eager to experiment with an item he didn’t even know existed. But even for the culinary expert who has explored everything from thirty-second TikTok food hacks to allowing random Omegle users to pick his lunch ingredients, deep frying water was a process of trial and error. “Most videos were using sodium alginate, but when we used that, it formed very delicate bubbles that would break when we tried to bread them. So, we tried using agar agar, which is a sort of vegan gelatin that is widely used in Asia,” he said.
While Bernanth’s attempt at deep-frying water was a way to shock-and-awe viewers, he also admitted that it was an important learning curve. “So many Asian cuisines use agar, so it’s kind of like you’re learning about that food and culture when you try to make deep fried water.”
Would he ever put it on the menu though? “It tastes like jellyfish,” he replied. So… no?
We don’t know about you, but we’ll probably be sticking to deep fried filters on TikTok in the future.