Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market isn’t the most likely place to inspire vegan recipe ideas. But when American chef James Corwell saw the breathtaking scale of tuna sold in just one morning, it struck him how the global appetite for seafood was unsustainable. He wasn’t wrong. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently reported that fish consumption had reached a record high, even though a third of the planet’s oceans are already overtaxed.
So Corwell (who once was named Best New Chef by New Orleans magazine) spent four years formulating Ahimi, which is made from Roma tomatoes and is pitched as a sushi-grade alternative to tuna. While an early Fast Company review liked the look and taste (albeit found it a bit too tomato-ey), more recent feedback suggests the current version is subbing in for tuna nicely. The chef chose tomato as Ahimi’s flavour base, given its highly savoury qualities; he uses a few ingredients (soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and water) and a sous-vide cooking process to generate a fishy-like flavour profile. Ahimi is currently served in select restaurants and is versatile enough to masquerade as ceviche, poké and other kinds of raw seafood. It’s also available in frozen, marinated and fillet forms from American retail outlets, for anyone wanting to replicate a sushi counter at home.
Ocean Hugger Foods, the brand behind Ahimi, is also developing other plant-based seafood alternatives: eggplant eel called Unami and carrot-based sashimi named Sakimi. The audience for these products isn’t strictly vegan, though. This range has appeal for pregnant women who’ve been warned off raw seafood, people who want their sushi or poké-bowl fix without depleting the ocean’s fish supplies, and anyone who likes the taste of sea creatures (minus the disturbing amount of mercury levels and pollutants they ingest).
So what do Australian chefs think of Ocean Hugger Foods' creations?
“I’m very keen to use these vegan alternatives,” says Anna Ishiguro, who runs Juan in Sydney’s Redfern. She currently has eel donburi on her menu, with a mushroom version as a vegetarian option. But Ocean Hugger Foods' eggplant eel offers multi-purpose appeal: it’d instantly make her donburi vegetarian and vegan-friendly. Plus, eggplant eel (or carrot sashimi) would be a convenient ingredient to have on standby because she has vegan employees to feed during staff meals. “Also, I had a poké bowl at the beginning and I stopped it,” she says. But the existence of tomato-based tuna gives her a good reason to revive it.
While Chase Kojima (Sokyo, Kiyomi) is also open to checking out the range, he’s no stranger to experimenting with plant-based seafood. Tomato sashimi with cucumber and poke sauce is something you can ask for when dining at Sokyo, for instance.
Ocean Hugger Foods should definitely send a brochure or sample pack to Josh Niland (Saint Peter, Fish Butchery), though. “I would really like to try these products, because they seem quite cool,” says the award-winning Sydney chef, who is known for his mastery of seafood. “I think anything’s that possible with a vegetable is fascinating.” Beyond the creative challenge, there are other drawcards. “It’s a powerful tool for Instagram, if you can put up an eggplant that looks like eel.” In fact, the concept has kickstarted some ideas: don’t surprised if a faux-eel dish lands on the Saint Peter menu one day.
“It’s a powerful tool for Instagram, if you can put up an eggplant that looks like eel.”
“It’s a very hard vegetable – there’s nothing worse than when an eggplant is under-cooked. It’s disgusting,” says chef Shannon Martinez, who runs Smith & Deli in Melbourne. Cooking eggplant easily ends up being one extreme (“it’s either under-cooked or baba ghanouj”), so if Ocean Hugger Foods nails that mid-point and distinct texture of eel, then its Unami could win over non-vegans, she suspects.
The brand’s tomato tuna, meanwhile, isn’t too far away from one of her own experiments.
“You know, we’ve been making smoked salmon out of watermelon since we opened the deli,” says Martinez. Her plant-based version of the dish was so convincing that it made co-owner Mo Wyse actually cry.
So Martinez is intrigued by Ocean Hugger Foods' tuna, but is surprised its chef took four years to develop his fish alternative. “I got it in one day,” she says.
To create a briney ocean flavour, Martinez marinates the watermelon in seaweed, then bakes the ingredient for a long time to reduce the liquid and create a slippery texture. Having encountered vegan “salmon” that’s “basically carrot shavings with liquid smoke”, Martinez is sceptical of plant-based meats that don’t properly live up to their brief. But she’s impressed by the ambition of Corwell’s range for Ocean Hugger Foods.
“I think what he’s doing is really great – more of this please.” It’s particularly noteworthy as usually the “good vegan seafood alternatives are all coming out of Asia”, particularly prawns and squid made out of konjac.
“I’m stoked for more people to be doing this sort of stuff,” she says and Ocean Hugger’s tomato tuna, eggplant eel and carrot sashimi can only move things forward. “If I can get my hands on it, I’ll definitely do that," she says. "I’ll see if I can get some into the deli."
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