Years ago, chef James Corwell was asked to create a line of vegetarian sushi for a party. Today's vegetarian sushi options are decent at best (sweet potato rolls) and insulting at worst (cucumber rolls, really?). So he started thinking about tomatoes. Like raw fish, seaweed, and soy sauce, they're high in savory components. It's not too much of a stretch, he thought, to lump tomatoes into the same category.
In the past few years, Corwell perfected his solution to the vegetarian sushi problem: tomato sushi—that is, tomatoes cooked sous vide and wrapped in seaweed and rice so that they have a near-identical resemblance in looks and texture to tuna. Here's a look at the creation process for the sushi, which is now available on Kickstarter:
I had a chance to try Corwell's tomato sushi, delivered fresh from his kitchen. As a seafood lover, I was skeptical. But it was tasty—thick and fatty, just like real tuna, with a savory taste that only betrayed hints of tomato-ness. I would mistake it for tuna in a line-up, but probably not after putting it in my mouth. It tastes more like ahi tuna than tomato, though the tomato juice is still there. I slipped the tomato sushi inside my dining partner's plate of seafood sushi; she had similar thoughts.
Still, it's better than most other vegetarian sushi options available today. As overfishing gets worse, it's looking increasingly likely that bluefin tuna, a favorite of sushi chefs, will disappear altogether. Some researchers predict a collapse of all fish species by mid-century.
We need palatable alternatives to seafood—if not to stave off extinction, then at least to make the transition to a seafood-free world easier to stomach. Plus, with his products, vegetarians can "go into a sushi restaurant and enjoy without feeling like a second-class citizen," says Corwell.
If the Kickstarter campaign reaches its $25,000 stretch goal, Corwell will make eggplant unagi available to backers. "Eggplant has that meaty quality to it already. We make an unagi glaze. It's a really good alternative to traditional eel," he says.
Tomato sushi is already available at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. Kickstarter funding will allow Corwell and his business partner, Brian Doyle, to built out a production line, so they can start providing their products to restaurants, hospitals, and corporate cafeterias. Hospitals, in particular, are an intriguing market. Tomato sushi is cooked, so patients with weakened immune systems can eat it, and it breaks out of the normal, boring hospital food mold.
Corwell says he has nothing against the array of lab-based replacements for meat and dairy—other foods that impact and are impacted by the growing human population—that have popped up in recent years. But he takes a different approach.
"Part of our culture is about how we can solve problem through technology and science. But it used to be that we would have peasant cuisine, mostly plant-protein based," he says. "As the population continues to rise, plant-based products will become sustenance for the planet. That shouldn't be a scary thing."
Check out the tomato sushi Kickstarter campaign here.