Over in America and Asia, people have been playing with plant-based fish to substitute the real deal in sushi, experimenting with everything from tuna to eel.
However, development in this area has been slow in the UK, with a greater focus on tackling the traditional fish and chips or putting alternatives like plant-based tuna into supermarkets. But now vegan salmon sushi has been launched in Planet Organic’s seven stores across London as a grab-and-go option – a first for the retail market, according to the brand behind the move, Ima.
“Our vegan salmon sushi will be a game changer – there is nothing like it on the market at the moment. It provides a bridge for those who are interested in becoming vegan, yet feel they can’t fully commit because previously they could not find an alternative to salmon sushi,” founder Jessica Chan tells Food Spark.
“But now they can! They will be surprised at how similar our vegan salmon is to real salmon and realise there are alternatives out there for them. They will still be able to enjoy sushi without compromising on the taste and at the same time feel good for making a food choice that’s good for the planet and oceans.”
Ima is a London-based sushi company, which was founded in December 2017 by Chan. Her dad is a chef and he taught her how to make sushi when she was 6. But when she decided to go vegan, there was lack of fish-free sushi options – a dilemma as it was her favourite food.
“My first vegan sushi was inspired by a popular vegan burger recipe which I found on Pinterest and absolutely loved,” she recalls. “This was BBQ pulled ‘pork’ made from jackfruit and thought this would taste really delicious in sushi – so I tried it and it was. This became the first Ima vegan sushi I created and sold to customers.”
From there, she grew the brand to 12 products, including vegan sushi burritos, katsu tempeh sushi burrito and a vegan hoisin duck, with the vegan salmon the latest to join the range.
Texture, taste and colour are the huge challenges when it comes to creating plant-based fish, says Chan, as she discovered while developing the vegan salmon.
“We initially used carrots but felt the texture wasn’t right for the sashimi texture we were looking for,” she comments.
The solution was found during a trip to Hong Kong last year, where Chan unearthed the root vegetable konjac. She was intrigued by the interesting texture and was also encouraged by its lack of taste, meaning it was a blank canvas for Ima’s development chef to test different flavours to replicate salmon.
“First the texture had to replicate salmon, which has a bite to it initially, then melts in your mouth. We use konjac, which has a jelly-like texture – nothing like salmon, so getting the texture just right was a challenge,” she explains.
“At one time, we would test at least 10 different ingredient combinations for the texture and then another 10 different kinds of flavour combinations.”
Chan is confident that people can’t tell the difference between the plant-based version and the real thing. There was a focus on keeping the taste simple as real salmon sashimi is supposed to be dipped in soy sauce to bring out the savoury taste, she adds.
Ima has also introduced a black rice vegan crab roll into Planet Organic and Sourced Market this month. Made from jackfruit, it has a similar soft texture to the crustacean.
Next on Chan’s radar is developing a vegan tuna. She has also been working with a Planet Organic buyer on ideas for new flavours, taking inspiration from the US market.
Sustainability and offering a solution to the rapid rate of depletion of fish in the ocean is a key driver of the brand. However, Chan notes that the sushi industry has always been heavily fish based and it will take a long time for this tradition to change – but is confident it will happen.
“It’s predicted that by 2048, there will be no more fish in the sea if we continue to eat fish the way we do. With more consumers becoming aware of the environmental impacts of fishing, more people will demand plant-based sushi,” she comments. “In turn, the sushi industry will have to transform and offer more vegan sushi options other than the usual cucumber roll.”
This is just the beginning of the plant-based fish market, predicts Chan, and it will follow the path of vegan meat over the past few years.
“Back then, plant-based meats were not mainstream, but now you can see them everywhere in major supermarkets and restaurants – it’s amazing. I believe it will be the same for plant-based fish,” she explains. “At Ima we challenge the view that vegan sushi is boring. We want to show people that vegan sushi can be just as tasty as fish sushi. Our vegan salmon will encourage more people to try vegan sushi and in turn create demand in restaurants for it.”
Long term, Chan hopes to bring Ima to other retailers, including Whole Foods and Waitrose.