You don't need fish to make great sushi

The Spicy Mang roll from Beyond Sushi combines avocado, mango, cucumber and spicy veggies.
The Spicy Mang roll from Beyond Sushi combines avocado, mango, cucumber and spicy veggies.
Posted: July 27, 2012

SAY THE WORDS "vegan sushi" to your average fine-diner and you're likely to get a blank stare. How, after all, can anything be called sushi without raw fish, the very meaning of the word itself?

Actually, the word sushi does not refer to raw fish, but to the key ingredient, vinegared rice. That's what makes sushi, sushi.

This comes up now for two reasons: One is that these hot July days are a perfect time to enjoy the cool pleasures of this Japanese staple; the other is that the fish-free-sushi envelope is being pushed in a big way by the appropriately named Beyond Sushi, which opened this month in New York City and is drawing crowds.

"I think it's a very mainstream thing," said Guy Vaknin, the "Hell's Kitchen" star behind the restaurant. He does admit that "some people tell me it's not really sushi at all. I say, that's fine, that's why I call it Beyond Sushi."

Vaknin is one pioneer within a wave of veg-friendly sushi styles that have grown in popularity within the past few years, a microcosm of sushi's burgeoning popularity worldwide over the past quarter-century or so.

But these veggie elements were always there within the sushi tradition: For instance, there's a style of sushi roll called futomaki whose most common varieties are vegetarian, combining multiple innards like cucumber, bamboo shoots, pickled daikon and diced carrots. Other varieties may include cooked crab, fish paste or pieces of omelet.

As more people in the U.S. are replacing animal products with plant foods, it's worth remarking that this very process has played an important role in the development of the cuisine: The California roll, invented at the restaurant Tokyo Kaikan in the late '60s, is widely credited with expanding the appeal of sushi from Southern California — where Japanese immigrants had established a beachhead — across the rest of America and then the rest of the world.

What was the signature innovation of the California roll? Replacing fatty tuna with avocado.

Regional variations soon spread across the U.S. One was the Philly roll, which added the namesake cream cheese. But vegan variations also emerged in places where fresh fruit and avocados are plentiful, like Hawaii.

Roll over

One fun thing about sushi is that anything that can be chopped or arranged into a cylindrical pattern can be a potential filling. And almost every sushi roll has some plant element, from the more basic (asparagus, cucumber, carrots, scallions, mushrooms, tofu and bamboo shoots) to more adventurous (mango, pineapple, sweet potato, daikon and pickled plum, or umeboshi).

The veg-friendly aspect of sushi often gets overlooked, but there are plenty of reasons people may want to go fish-free. The Beyond Sushi site notes that veggie sushi is "perfect for pregnant women who cannot eat fish for 9 months and are bored with ordering mundane cucumber-avocado rolls with standard white rice," and also that "kids who don't like fish in their sushi can get their servings of fruits and veggies in a tasty way."

Of course, in addition to wanting to avoid the mercury in most fatty wild fish and the diseases of farmed fish, some choose not to eat seafood because our oceans have been overfished or because they don't want to deprive an animal of life. Then there are simply those who say, "Raw fish? Yecch!"

Finding a vegan option

So if you want veggie sushi, where do you go? Beyond Sushi is an obvious destination for the adventurous Philadelphia-area connoisseur. As part of his "beyond" approach, Vaknin uses black rice or a rice blend, and avoids soy sauce and other high-sodium elements. He depends on the freshness of ingredients and his combination of them to deliver "a burst of flavor."

It's this skill in pairing and balancing filling components that makes for a mouth-pleasing sushi experience. A vegetarian himself, Vaknin knows that "people often think something's not going to be as flavorful being vegetarian." But he's proving them wrong: "I say it's all about how much love you put into it."

Then again, not all of us are going to make the hike to Manhattan just for a roll or a hunk of nigiri (sushi comes in many formats; we're focusing on "maki" rolls). Fortunately, it's quite feasible to get interesting veg rolls at most regular sushi restaurants around Philadelphia (see sidebar). The one caveat is that if you're totally fish-free, you may need to ask about fish flakes in broth (dashi) or sauces that are often used to flavor the sushi ingredients.

DIY sushi

Like soup, sushi is a forgiving food medium. Thus, anyone with a hankering for the funky finger food can make sushi at home. Although it may take a master's skill to create the colorful, eye-popping aesthetics of Beyond Sushi ("first you eat with your eyes," reminds Vaknin), you can begin with established pairings before you get adventurous.

If you know how to cook rice, you're already most of the way there (see sidebar). You can start with a basic, fail-safe filling combo like carrots, scallion and cucumber — balancing sweet, spicy and "clean" flavors, respectively — and then start swapping in other elements with similar properties.

The basic flavor is meant to be supplemented with a more powerful sauce, often flavored with pickled ginger or wasabi. (That's green Japanese horseradish, though any "wasabi" you're likely to get around here is really just horseradish, mustard and green coloring.) You can also add wasabi or pickled ginger to the interior of the roll. Go ahead and dip the thing in soy sauce for one more layer of kick.

Once you have your basic ingredients — prepared rice, fillings and nori (seaweed) wrappers — the only other thing you may want to get is a small bamboo mat to help with rolling the sushi cylinder. Find them at dollar stores or supermarkets. You don't have to get an elaborate sushi-making kit for what is essentially a place mat. And if you don't have a mat, you can use a dish towel.

Whether you're trekking up to Beyond Sushi, finding veg options around town or making your sushi at home, here's one thing you don't need: chopsticks. Sushi rolls are meant to be eaten with your fingers — and with delight! So go ahead and have it your way.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.

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