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Vegan seafood has come a long way thanks to science, 'Seaspiracy'

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
The Beer Plant in Tarrytown serves plant-based crabless cakes made from hearts of palm and artichokes.

Plant-based meats have been in the news lately, but I’ve been thinking about plant-based fish.

First, an update on the proposed Texas Meat and Imitation Food Act, a piece of state legislation that would prevent companies that make plant-based proteins from using the word "meat,” “beef," "chicken," "pork" or any "common variation" of them to describe the product, even if only to claim similar textures, flavors or cooking methods.

The bill, H.B. 3799, recently passed in the House and will move on to the Senate, where we’ll hear more testimony from ranchers and food manufacturers on an issue that has been causing plenty of political tussles in recent years. 

Not included in this legislation are plant-based seafood products, which have been of particular interest to this flexitarian food writer.

It all started with a box of vegan shrimp from Sophie’s Kitchen that I bought right before the pandemic started. 

Sophie's Kitchen is one of several plant-based seafood brands you can find in grocery stores. Rabbit Food Grocery in Tarrytown carries a large selection of vegan meat alternatives.

A few months into the quarantine, I finally pulled these fake shrimp out of the freezer and read the instructions: Thaw completely in the refrigerator overnight and then pan-fry in oil, preferably coconut oil. 

I’m glad I followed those instructions exactly because the following night, my kids and I had creamy pasta with breaded shrimp and decided that the faux shrimp wasn’t just as good as the real thing; it was better. Maybe even the best “shrimp” we’d ever had.

Now that product is in regular rotation on my shopping list. (It’s available at Sprouts in Austin. The other products in the line are good, but the shrimp is tops.)

I’m not the only one who has noticed that plant-based seafood alternatives have been having a moment. 

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Jessica Morris, one of the founders of Rabbit Food Grocery, says vegan sausages, chicken and beef were among the first faux-meats to hit shelves, but as more people have been eliminating fish and seafood from their diets, too, companies are filling the demand. 

This plant-based tuna sandwich from Tellus Joe is made with a product from the Austin-based company Good Catch.

This spring, she started selling a plant-based, sashimi-style salmon and tuna from a company called Vegan Zeaster that has been so popular, she's had a hard time keeping it in stock. She also carries several shrimp and tuna alternatives, as well as products from Gardein, which sells frozen "fishless filets" and "crabless cakes."

Upton Naturals, another leading brand in the plant-based food space, added banana blossoms to its product lineup in 2020, giving customers another option for cooking fish substitutes at home. 

One of the biggest up-and-coming plant-based seafood brands is the Austin-based Good Catch, a global company that debuted three years ago with a shelf-stable “tuna” that has proved popular enough that Bumblebee, the tuna company, is one of the company’s distribution partners. 

It’s an interesting tale to hear from the founder, Chad Sarno, a longtime Austin chef who previously worked at Whole Foods Market and then co-founded a vegan food company, Wicked Healthy, with his brother in 2008. 

Sarno suffered from asthma as a kid, and after cutting dairy out of his diet at 18, his lung problems went away. “That was a turning point,” he says. “I transformed my anger into my activism.” 

Good Catch recently added plant-based fish sticks to its product line, which is available in the U.S. and the U.K.

Over the past 20 years, Sarno has been a leader in the vegan food movement, and he and his brother have watched veganism go mainstream. Beyond Meat, which launched in 2009, and Impossible Foods, established in 2011, introduced plant-based proteins to grocery stores and even fast food restaurants across the U.S. Wicked Healthy started its own line of grocery goods in the U.K., where the company now sells 95 products. 

Chad Sarno says that recent studies have shown that 45% of the U.S. population is looking for meat alternatives. (In the UK, that number is closer to 70%.) 

“It feels like the curtain is starting to pull back and people are starting to recognize that it’s not a bunch of hippies who are trying to go against the system,” he says. “It’s real solutions for the problems we’re facing.” 

Sarno says that for a long time, fish and seafood were considered healthier or more planet-friendly protein alternatives, but recent studies, articles and documentaries, including “Seaspiracy,” have found that the fishing industry is one of the biggest threats to ocean health. Nearly 50 percent of the trash in the ocean is related to fishing, and the number of bycatch — the animals that unintentionally get caught in fishing nets — is still troubling. 

Plant-based fish products were out there, but Sarno says he saw an opportunity to blend his culinary know-how with the advances in food technology that allowed them to make more realistic alternatives. 

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“The highest impact opportunity was tuna,” Sarno says. “Tuna is one of the most destructive industries globally.” For instance, 90,000 dolphins are estimated to be killed annually in tuna fisheries worldwide, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sarno and his team spent a year and a half working on the texture of the original plant-based tuna product, he says. “Soy and pea have been what people relied on to make concentrated proteins to make these products,” he says, “but all of those beans and legumes have gelling properties. Technology has come so far when it comes to food production.” 

The key to Good Catch’s products is a six-legume blend with peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans and navy beans, which create a similar texture and provide comparable protein as fish, shrimp or crab. 

Even before they launched the shelf-stable tuna, Sarno says they were hearing from the big tuna companies. Not because they were trying to stop their progress but because they wanted to partner with them. “As soon as they heard what we were doing and saw the investments, they saw it was a growth opportunity,” he says. 

Sarno admits he never thought he’d find partners in the animal agriculture industry, but those companies realize that the shift toward plant-based proteins isn’t a fad that’s going away any time soon. 

“They recognize that consumer needs are changing, and they recognize that it’s not sustainable (to rely only on the traditional product),” he says. 

Getting that support from Bumblebee and other investors who see where current trends are heading gave Good Catch the capital they needed to build a 44,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Ohio that opened last summer.

The company’s debut frozen products hit stores in July with foodservice sales following in September. Less than a year after opening the manufacturing plant, the company is selling at more than 4,000 stores across North America and Europe. Good Catch’s distribution strategy includes selling its products next to the regular product, so the frozen plant-based fish fillets are sold in the frozen seafood section. 

Just last week, Gathered Foods, which is Good Catch’s parent company, announced three new frozen products: breaded fish sticks, fish fillets and crab cakes, all plant-based. 

Good Catch also sells New England crab cakes, Thai fish cakes and fish burgers in the freezer section, and its plant-based tuna is available in the tuna section of the grocery store in three flavors: Naked in Water, Mediterranean, and Oil & Herbs.

You can find Good Catch products locally in Randalls and nationally at chains such as Albertsons and Tom Thumb, but Sarno says he is most excited about the company’s international distribution.

The company’s wholesale product, which it sells directly to food service providers and restaurants, such as the Beer Plant in Tarrytown and Hoover's Cooking in East Austin, has become one of its bestselling products. Several regional restaurant chains, including Bareburger, carry the product, as well as some Whole Foods Markets. 

Beer Plant co-owner Sarah McMackin says she thinks the Good Catch team "nailed it with the flavor and texture, as well as using whole food ingredients," she says. "Using algae was genius, since that’s why fish tastes like fish and, of course, it’s super healthy." 

McMackin currently sells the plant-based tuna sandwich through the company's new Tellus Joe coffee shop operation, which is open inside the Beer Plant for breakfast and lunch. (Tellus Joe's physical space next door should be open by June, she reports, and when the cafe opens, they'll start selling grab-and-go versions of the sandwich.)

The Beer Plant also sells "crab" cakes made with artichokes and hearts of palm, which has long been used as a seafood substitute in the vegan community. Chef Matthew Perez has also figured out how to make "lox" out of carrots for Beer Plant's brunch menu. 

Later this summer, look for fish 'n' chips made with banana blossoms and ceviche made with hearts of palm, she says.

Just across the parking lot of the Tarrytown shopping center where both Beer Plant and Rabbit Food Grocery are located, Morris was in her shop last week, pointing out the fish-replacement products that have been around for a long time, including Loma Linda, and the newer ones, like that Vegan Zeastar product, which has a texture so similar to real fish that some sushi lovers can't tell the difference.

Morris says she's had an influx of customers asking about seafood alternatives, especially since that "Seaspiracy" documentary came out on Netflix earlier this year. "You can even buy vegan calamari now," she says. "It's amazing."

The "tuna" in this maki is made with tomato instead of fish.

Spicy “Tuna” Maki

Did you know you can make vegan “tuna” from tomatoes? As crazy as it sounds, it’s actually incredibly delicious. Slightly cooked tomato flesh soaked in a flavorful fishy marinade works miracles, especially in combination with the other flavors of sushi. You really can veganize anything! Note: For nori flakes, you can simply grate, chop or crumble a nori sheet.

— Kirsten Kaminski

For the “tuna”:

3 ripe roma tomatoes

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon miso paste

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 teaspoon nori flakes

1 teaspoon chili sauce

Maki Rolls:

3 tablespoons vegan cream cheese

3 to 4 nori sheets

7 ounces sushi rice 

To serve:

Soy sauce 

Green onions 

— From "The Traveling Vegan Cookbook: Exciting Plant-Based Meals from the Mediterranean, East Asia, the Middle East and More" by Kirsten Kaminski (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)                                                                   

This stew from "Earthy Vegan Eats" by Maria Gureeva uses tofu instead of fish.

Ukha (Russian Fish Soup)

Ukha is a popular Russian soup, made with different fish and typically served on special occasions. It’s easy to make vegan, and you can even replicate a fish-like flavor using nori. Add in any other vegetables you have on hand, and replace the firm tofu with silken tofu if that’s what you prefer. This soup is best served with a side of crusty bread.

— Maria Gureeva

4 cups vegetable stock

1 cup finely cubed potatoes

1 1/2 cups peeled and diced carrots

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 nori sheets, cut into strips

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill 2 bay leaves

5 ounces firm tofu, cubed

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Black pepper

Bring the vegetable stock to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the potatoes, carrots, onion, nori strips, dill and bay leaves. Simmer for around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard the bay leaves and add the tofu, salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for around 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

— From "Earthy Vegan Eats: 60 Delicious Gluten-Free Plant-Based Recipes" by Maria Gureeva (Page Street Publishing, $21.99) 

Correction: This story has been updated with the name of the Beer Plant's head chef, Matthew Perez. Josh Drew is the general manager.