So, the time has finally come to announce the winner of our unagi replacement contest. We managed to try all of the items that were suggested (with the lamentable exception of rattlesnake) and have come to a clear and unanimous decision about which we feel best replicated the dark, sweet experience that unagi fans have come to crave.
I’ll go over the entries one by one:
1) Portobello mushroom, suggested by Christina
This actually delivered a very nice dish, albeit not one that ended up working as an unagi substitute. The mushroom held the kabayaki flavor well and, if marinated in some similar flavors, really did deliver that sweetness that eel fans are looking for. It was a very nice bit in its own right — but as far as the goal of supplanting unagi was concerned, it came up short in texture. The spongy nature of the mushroom made it difficult to mimic the delicate, flaky nature of eel. Still, we did eat the whole dish. I mean, it tasted really good… it just wasn’t what we were looking for.
2) Arctic char, suggested by Genie
Arctic char is a delicious fish and I’m huge proponent of using it in sushi. We tried it out for this purpose and, to be honest, it almost seemed a bit of a shame to cover a complex and well-flavored fish with the saccharine syrup that is used to prepare your standard unagi. All the delicacy of the char was overwhelmed. Again, not a bad dish, but the char could be so much more on its own.
3) Spanish mackerel, suggested by Richard
Spanish mackerel is an interesting fish that is, in my opinion, underused in the sushi world. Known in Japanese as sawara, Spanish mackerel can be delicious in the hands of a skilled sushi chef that knows how to properly marinate and prepare it. We wrangled with the idea of marinating it in a typical pre-nigiri style before turning it into kabayaki, but decided against it in favor of using the natural flavors of the fish. In the end, the natural flavors of the mackerel were a bit too strong and clashed with the sauce.
4) Sanddabs, suggested by Amy
I cannot even express how much I enjoy sanddabs. Although they’re found in other areas as well, sand dabs are considered a local delicacy of the Monterey Bay area, these flaky saucer-sized flatfish are a genuine local treat for those visiting or living on the Central California coast. Unfortunately for the sake of this contest, the flesh of the fillets is simply too delicate and lean to withstand the searing that unagi is subjected to. It tasted quite nice, but the heat caused the fish to fall apart.
5) Pacific Octopus, suggested by Roshi
We were unable to locate true North pacific giant octopus, and instead sourced some fresh trap-caught common octopus (as opposed to packaged and prepared product generally used as tako in sushi bars). To be honest, it was a rather odd dish that we created. The octopus does not take well to the kind of cooking that is used to prepare unagi, needing instead a prolonged blanching period. After we blanched the octopus, we attempted to sear it in a kabayaki style, but ended up just charring the flesh. In the end it was far too chewy. On the plus side, this suggestion did force us to look around for some sustainable replacements to the standard it-says-product-of-Japan-but-who-knows-where-it-really-comes-from octopus that the conventional sushi industry uses all too frequently.
6) Eggplant, suggested by Heather
This was a great call. The marinated eggplant took the flavors intrinsic to a standard unagi dish extremely well, and while the eggplant itself ended up soft and flaky, we were able to sear it along the sides to change the outer consistency. The presence of the eggplant skin was invaluable as well, as the marinade, kabayaki sauce, and blowtorch flame combined to create an impressive simulacrum of well-cooked eel skin.
So, in the end, the winner was Heather with her eggplant suggestion. Score one for vegan sushi!
Heather will receive a copy of Sustainable Sushi as well as a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco.
Oh, and I should mention — just because the contest is over doesn’t mean that we’re not still looking for new ways to replace unagi. Eel populations are still crashing and Chinese eel ranches continue to spill more pollution into neighboring wetlands every day. Until eels have been properly protected and stocks are rebuilding, we will continue to look for inventive options that can serve to make the presence of eel on sushi menus obsolete.
Thanks everyone for your entries, this was really a lot of fun for us.