Many cultures and religions do not consider fish to be meat. Growing up Jewish and eating only kosher food, fish fell into a neutral category, being neither meat nor dairy, and so could be eaten with either type of dish. When Catholics abstain from meat for Lent and on Good Friday, fish is permitted because the term “meat” only applies to land animals. Fish are not considered meat in Asian culture as I learned the hard way when the “vegetable tempura” I ordered included shrimp and the miso soup was cooked with fish broth. This may be the crux of the reason why when we tell people we are vegetarian or vegan, we are asked in response whether or not we eat fish (I have no explanation why we get asked if we eat chicken, however). Regardless of the reasoning, we do know that fish have flesh and that is because they are living beings. Like other living beings, they have feelings including pain and the fact that they are factory farmed is just as bad for fish as it is for cows, chickens and other animals. Fish deserve to live as much as the whales and dolphins that people fight to save. Eating fish is not as healthy as people think it is and it certainly isn’t healthy for our planet.
The good news is that we can recreate all our favorite seafood dishes without the fish. It’s the same as when we veganize our favorite beef and chicken dishes. If we can replicate the texture and the flavors of those seafood dishes, we can have the pleasure of eating familiar foods without any of the consequences for us, the planet or the fish. Here are the tips you need to make delicious seafood dishes without the fish.
1. Match the Texture
When veganizing a recipe, it’s important to match the texture of the food you are replacing. Some fish dishes are flaky while others are more smooth and solid. It’s also a matter of personal preference. When I make dishes that I want to be flaky such as “Fish” and Chips or “Crab” Cakes, I prefer using tempeh but some people prefer using tofu as in these Vegan “Fish” and Chips. Chickpeas also make delicious “crab” cakes as well as vegan “tuna” salad and Gelfilte “Fish.” When you need a firm texture with some chew to it, such as for vegan scallops or shrimp recipes, extra-firm tofu that has been pressed really well is your best bet. Don’t forget vegetables! Mushrooms such as oyster, shitake and others can sub for shrimp, scallops and even calamari. In this Mock Tuna Salad, the main ingredients are almonds and sunflower seeds.
2. Add the Flavor of the Sea
After texture, the next important quality to replicate is the flavor. There are specific flavors that are added to seafood dishes and we can add those same flavors to our veganized seafood dishes with the right herbs, spices and other ingredients. In my opinion, the most important flavors that remind me of the sea are what I call the “Sea Trinity” – lemon, seaweed and Old Bay Seasoning. Many seafood dishes are served with lemon so adding some lemon zest or juice to the dish will stimulate those flavor memories. Adding seaweed gives you back the taste of the ocean. You can use crumbled up pieces of nori or other seaweed or add kelp flakes or dulce flakes to the recipe. Old Bay Seasoning is commonly used in seafood dishes. It is a combination of many herbs and spices that add flavor and a bit of heat. When I make my Tofu Scallops, I coat them in a mix of Old Bay, Kelp Flakes, and Lemon Zest before I cook them. I’ve been told they taste even better than actual scallops. If tuna salad was one of your favorites, you can replicate that taste by adding these flavors as well as dill, celery seed and pickle relish as in this Chickpea “Tuna” Salad and this Tempeh “Tuna” Salad.
3. What About Fish Sauce?
Fish sauce is a staple in many Asian dishes, especially Thai and Vietnamese food. It’s what gives them their unique flavors. It is also used in a lot of condiments so read your labels. Fish sauce is made from fermented fish and sea salt. Fish sauce adds umami (savory flavor) to foods. If you read this article, The Missing Link: How to Add Umami Flavors to Vegan Dishes, then you know all about it. Fermented vegan foods as well as miso, seaweed and mushrooms can add umami to recipes. It follows, then, that we can easily make a vegan version of fish sauce that you can use the next time you make Street Pad Thai.
When I need to add that flavor to dishes, I just combine ½ cup of tamari or soy sauce, 1 minced garlic clove, 3 Tbs. of kelp flakes or shredded seaweed, 1 Tbs. lemon juice, 1 Tbs. agave nectar and ½ cup water. If I want it spicy, I add some crushed red pepper, though Sriracha would work well too. Mix it well and use in equal quantity to the fish sauce listed in any recipe. You can also try this Vegan “Fish” Sauce recipe in your next Thai dish. Another option is to substitute umeboshi paste for the fish sauce.
4. Hold the Anchovies
Maybe you always skipped the anchovies on your pizza but they turn up in a lot of other places you may not suspect. Anchovies add a salty, briny, umami flavor to many dishes including pasta sauces and salad dressings. They are the ingredient that makes Worcestershire sauce not vegan since anchovies are a type of fish. Just like with fish sauce, we can use many products to substitute for that anchovy flavor. Umeboshi, which is pickled ume “plums,” is a Japanese condiment. Umeboshi paste is salty, fruity and can take the place of anchovies in recipes. Another way to get that distinct anchovy flavor is to use a combination of seaweed, tamari and the liquid brine from a jar of capers. Other ways to add similar flavors is to use miso, vegan Worcestershire sauce, tamarind, briny olives and capers or liquid aminos. Try subbing the anchovies in dishes like this Pasta Puttanesca and New Caesar Salad. To learn more about umeboshi, check out Umeboshi Plum Vinegar: Tips, Health Benefits, and Recipes.
5. Cook it Up
For the most part, I cook my vegan seafood dishes almost exactly the way the original dishes are cooked. My Tempeh “Fish” Fillets get covered in a thick, gluten-free batter of chickpea flour that is made lighter with seltzer. Instead of deep-frying them, however, I pan-fry them and they taste just like the fish and chips I loved to order in pubs. This Vegan Chickpea “Tuna” Melt gets cooked in the oven or under the broiler until the vegan cheese is browned and bubbly as is this Vegan Tuna Casserole. It’s funny that when I set out to veganize scallops, I had never eaten scallops, let alone cooked them. However, I watch a lot of cooking shows on television so I know what to do and what not to do. I used the free cooking lessons on TV to cook my Tofu Scallops properly – make sure they are patted dry so you get the proper sear, don’t touch them once they are in the pan until you see the ring form on the side and baste them with vegan butter. They look exactly like the scallops that pass inspection from the master chefs on TV.
Personally, I have never understood the fascination with eating raw fish. I tasted sushi once and that was enough for me. But that’s me. People everywhere absolutely love sushi and that includes vegans. If you have ever wanted to make your own sushi, we have plenty of tips and tricks for you. First of all, you have to know How to Make Perfect Sushi Rice. Then get the veggies ready by reading How to Prep Perfect Veggies for Sushi Rolls. Learn How to Make Vegan California and Teriyaki Tofu Sushi and How to Reinvent Your Sushi, Vegan-Style. Other recipes include Veggie Sushi: The Green Roll, Raw Carrot Sushi, Multi-Whole-Grain Inari Sushi (Sushi Grains in Fried Tofu Pockets), Tempeh Maki Rolls and How to Make the Best Veggie Sushi Rolls.
7. Condiments and Sauces
Who wants a dish of vegan “fish” and chips without tartar sauce? No one! When you serve your vegan seafood dishes, use the condiments and sauces that usually accompany those dishes. Make a quick tartar sauce like the one I serve with my Tempeh “Fish” and Chips or try this Sun-Dried Tomato Tartar Sauce for some added color. Serve your vegan “crab” cakes with a side of Horseradish-Dill Mayo or Sweet Balsamic Mayo. Lemon-Dill Remoulade is perfect to put on your “fish” tacos or Bad Ass Vegan Fish Sandwiches. This Spicy Dipping Sauce is perfect for sushi or wraps as is wasabi, hot sauce and tamari. Serve your vegan Gefilte “fish” with the classic side of prepared horseradish. As for sauces, nothing is more decadent than a rich, buttery scampi sauce. Whether you make a simple one with white wine, vegan butter, garlic, and lemon like my Tofu “Shrimp” Scampi or a spicy one with hot peppers and olives, you will feel like you are back at your old favorite restaurant by the sea.
Remember, fish are not vegetables. They deserve the same compassion we show to other animals. When it’s possible to make all these amazing dishes that remind you of your favorite seafood meals without the fish, why wouldn’t you?
Lead image source: Vegan Fish-and-Chips (a Cleaned-Up British Classic)