Authenticity And Its Discontents

Chef James Corwell's nigiri sushi rolls made with Tomato Sushi, a plant-based tuna alternative, in San Francisco. Alastair Bland for NPR

Chef James Corwell’s nigiri sushi rolls made with Tomato Sushi, a plant-based tuna alternative, in San Francisco.
Alastair Bland for NPR

I am realizing more each day how complex the notion of authenticity is. It is often, I see with increasing frequency, a cliche thrown casually into descriptions and promotions of this or that. Are there times when something other than authenticity is appropriate, even for an organization such as ours that promotes offering travelers authentic experiences of various cultures around the world, including local cuisine?

This story has me thinking (thanks to National Public Radio, USA and its program called “the salt”) that if foodies can make the leap from literal authenticity to a more complex notion of authenticity, for the sake of the environment as well as for broadened pleasures of the palate, it may serve as a model for how to approach seemingly intractable challenges facing the planet (in the case of this story, fisheries collapse but also the broader challenges of collapse), including the ever-changing cultures that make our planet worth traveling:

It’s a dead ringer for Ahi tuna sashimi. It cuts into glistening slivers that are firm and juicy. And it’s got a savory bite.

But this flesh-like food is not fish. It’s made of tomato, and it’s what San Francisco chef James Corwell hopes could be one small step toward saving imperiled species of fish, like bluefin tuna.

“What I want is to create a great sushi experience without the tuna,” Corwell tells The Salt.

To make this Tomato Sushi, he skins and removes the seeds from fresh Roma tomatoes. Then he vacuum seals them in sturdy plastic bags and cooks them in hot water for about an hour — a technique called sous-vide.

The process firms up the tomatoes and creates a texture similar to tuna. Corwell throws in a few more ingredients (he won’t divulge what they are), and slices them up. When eaten with sushi rice, nori, ginger, soy sauce and wasabi, they’re delicious.

Corwell is not the only entrepreneur experimenting with fish-like alternatives to seafood. (His product is so far available at one retail market in San Francisco and via mail order.) But with issues like overfishing, bycatch and high mercury levels gaining traction with consumers, it may only be a matter of time before demand kickstarts a faux-fish movement on the heels of the plant-based protein revolution already underway.

So far, a handful of sushi chefs and food manufacturers are testing the waters. Sophie’s Kitchen makes vegan calamari, scallops and fish fillets, with most products breaded and ready to bake or fry. Their VeganToona actually comes in a can; it’s made from pea protein, potato starch, seaweed powder and olive oil.

"What I want is to create a great sushi experience without the tuna," Chef James Corwell says. Alastair Bland for NPR

“What I want is to create a great sushi experience without the tuna,” Chef James Corwell says.
Alastair Bland for NPR

Garden Protein International uses soybeans and other plant material to make a line of vegan meat substitutes, including a “Fishless Fillet.”

But in spite of these trailblazers, the alt-seafood market is still a few steps behind plant-based alternatives to meat, egg and dairy products.

Beyond Meat, a company based in Los Angeles, makes vegan ground beef and chicken strips with soy and pea protein. “We take [amino acids, fats, carbohydrates and minerals] and, with heat and pressure, stitch them together in the architecture of meat protein,” he says. “We do what it takes a cow two years to do in three minutes.”

Impossible Foods is making plant-based beef, complete with bioengineered plant-based blood, and cheese. Hampton Creek Foods makes a vegan mayonnaise with pea protein in place of eggs.

Muufri is a small firm still in the research-and-development stages of creating milk — without the cow. The production process, explains one of the company’s founders, Isha Datar, involves genetically modified yeast cells, which reassemble amino acids into milk-like form.

Datar says that her company is not inventing new versions of dairy products. “We’re just learning new ways to make the same product,” Datar says.

Read the whole story here.

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