Is vegan fish right for your shop?

17 January 2022, 09:18 AM
  • Should you stock fashionable faux fish or serve it in your restaurant? And how do you ensure the real fish you sell is sustainable, asks Sally-Jayne Wright
Is vegan fish right for your shop?

Vegan fish sounds like a contradiction in terms. Yet multinational food companies are launching innovative, fake fish products onto the market just as they’ve done with meat-free burgers, and dairy-free milk and cheese. Waitrose reported that sales of their vegan Plantlife range – which includes vegan fish – are up 21% compared with 2020.

Give me some faux fish examples, please

How about calamari made from oyster mushrooms, or smoked Zalmon made from thinly-sliced carrots in a smoky marinade. Waitrose sells Plantlife Thai-style No Fish Cakes made with jackfruit and Ocado will deliver Vegan Zeastar Lemon Shrimpz, a frozen product.

Have you seen faux fish on restaurant menus?

At the Turk’s Head pub in Penzance in September, we enjoyed their bestselling vegan fish and chips made by sprinkling banana blossom – a south-east Asian fruit – with seaweed and deep-frying it in batter. Opened in May 2021, Holy Carrot is a sleek new vegan restaurant inside a spa in London’s Knightsbridge. Diners can opt for a ‘crab’ burger made from palm hearts and lobster mushrooms, or cauliflower rice maki made with avocado and tomato ‘tuna’.

What’s behind the trend?

Plant-based lifestyles. Only 1.9% of households contain a full-time vegan (Kantar). However, the Vegan Society predicts that by 2025, a quarter of the population will be vegan or vegetarian, and half flexitarian – people who eat animal foods on some days. Ethics. A Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, caused particular alarm. The gist was there’s no longer any sustainable fish from the ocean.

Is that true?

Critics of Seaspiracy cited out-of-date facts, unrealistic extrapolations and hidden agendas to sell vegan food. The Marine Stewardship Council, set up to certify sustainable fish, was obliged to defend itself on its website. “Fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term.” It mentioned the many people around the world who rely on fishing for their livelihood.

How can we make our in-store fish counter more sustainable?

Copy Hackney fishmongers, Fin and Flounder, who have exchanged farmed and imported fish for that caught by small sea boats and inshore vessels. Sell local and seasonal fish and promote lesser appreciated species such as flounder, whiting and plaice. Other tips are to sell shellfish, crabs, mussels and lobster – sustainable because of their abundance and position in the food chain.

Charles Redfern, founder of Fish4Ever, suggests that, “from a climate point of view, wild fish is almost as eco-friendly as a vegan diet with barely any footprint and, if fished in sensible volumes, an infinitely renewable resource”.

How sustainable is fake fish?

Simon Wright, who chairs the Quality Food Awards judging panel, noted many vegan fish entries this year. His personal view is that “too many rely on soy or pea protein which unless grown sustainably (i.e. with no GM or deforestation) are not sustainable ingredients”.

What’s actually in those faux fish fillets?

It ranges from relatively simple ingredients like jackfruit, banana blossom, mushrooms, tofu and Quorn, to less appetising-sounding combinations such as pea, soya and wheat protein, methyl cellulose thickener, maize and wheat starch and sunflower oil.

How do they taste?

Customer reviews are mixed. We enjoyed the novelty of banana blossom fish and chips though craved more seaweed for a fishier taste. Much of the pleasure came from associated tastes and textures – mushy peas, crisp batter and tangy tartare sauce.

Which brands do you recommend?

The Times gave Moving Mountains’ Fish Fillets five out of five stars, food editors praising the flaky ‘meat’, subtle cod-like taste and crispy, crunchy batter. Vegan expert, Richard Makin, on, praised the delicate flavour and sweet-salty balance of Zalmon – see above. He said, “The texture isn’t identical to salmon but we barely noticed this when (it was) layered on a bagel with vegan cream cheese and dill.” We like Cavi-art, a seaweed-based faux caviar from Denmark, ideal for vegan canapes.

How can I make the most of the trend?

    • Ask customers if they want to buy vegan fish. Start cautiously with frozen, not chilled and don’t lecture
    • Buy good vegan sauces such as Inspired Vegan’s tartare
    • Educate yourself about ethical vegan brands
    • Molly, 21, will love you forever if she can order vegan fish and chips in your café while Nan and Grandad are eating mainstream cod and chips. The fryer’s on anyway so it can’t be that difficult
    • If you succeed in creating an affordable vegan smoked salmon bagel, put it on Instagram and the fans will come

Will the trend last?
Faux fish is still a novelty and we predict a backlash against ultra-processed foods. We agree with Simon Wright that manufacturers must improve the nutritional profile and use fewer, more natural ingredients. Let’s be optimistic. Gluten-free bread has improved hugely since the early days. Quality rises to the top. Meanwhile, a great-tasting vegan fish dish on your café menu can make you a destination restaurant, especially if your area is poorly served and you appear on vegan forums. So shout about it.

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