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Vegan, vegetarian sandwiches are taking over restaurant menus – Marin Independent Journal

At Kiku Sushi & Vegetarian, a hidden gem in Lafayette where the restaurant’s whiteboard showcases fresh, seasonal seafood flown in straight from Japan, there’s a growing list of plant-based sushi rolls that impress pescatarians, vegans, and vegetarians .

Chef Sophia Batsaikhan’s savory creations — a dragon roll made with sweet potato tempura, avocado and eggplant instead of eel; spicy tuna reinterpreted as marinated tomato and seven-spice powder — are part of a growing movement among Bay Area sushi chefs to address seafood sustainability and make plant-based eaters feel welcome.

Lightning Rolls filled with enoki mushroom, pumpkin tempura, asparagus and avocado are served with a chia yuzu ponzu drizzle at Kiku Sushi & Vegetarian in Lafayette. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
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In addition to Kiku, restaurants such as Kaiyō in San Francisco and the mini-chain Sushi Confidential in San Jose, Campbell and Morgan Hill are adding to their menus featuring sashimi, nigiri, maki and temaki made with ingredients such as pickled burdock root, pressed pear and tofu. cashew wasabi cream. The very latest techniques, the freshest ingredients and Japanese seasonings yield sushi that doesn’t skimp on beauty or taste, even without the fish.

Batsaikhan, who opened Kiku Lafayette in 2021 and also heads the kitchen at its 12-year-old sister restaurant in Berkeley, first noticed the demand for vegetarian sandwiches about six years ago.

“Sushi lovers would come in with their vegetarian friends, and all they could eat was a cucumber roll,” she says. “I wanted all my customers to experience great sushi. So we started experimenting with different ingredients and flavors and tasting everything.”

Today, 24 kinds of plant-based sushi are on the menu, not to mention a large selection of vegetarian gyoza, soba, salads, and soups, including a wonderful mushroom soup in a clear, delicate broth. Thanks to their texture and natural umami, mushrooms play a prominent role in many vegetarian sushi programs, and Kiku’s is no exception.

LAFAYETTE, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 6: Jay Batsaikhan serves a tray of Golden Gate Rolls at Kiku Sushi & Vegetarian in Lafayette, Calif., Thursday, October 6, 2022. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Jay Batsaikhan serves a tray of Kiku’s Golden Gate Rolls filled with pickled burdock, shiso and cucumber, topped with sweet potato and green onion. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Baked king mushrooms replace scallops on the vegan baked scallop, to which is added umami of seaweed pearls and a spicy sauce. Batsaikhan transforms tomato into a death knell for spicy tuna by marinating the tomato in soy sauce and other ingredients for two days to get that red-brown color. She and her team use tofu instead of crab, and their seaweed salad isn’t the neon stuff from a tub, but a vibrant, made-to-order dish featuring six types of seaweed.

“Typical wakame is made from seaweed roots and often comes from a factory,” she says. “I want people to feel like everything is fresh and well made.”

You can make these rolls at home too, if you have the right tools, says sushi chef Bryan Sekine, the insider behind Secrets of Sushi and author of 2021’s “Vegetarian & Vegan Sushi Cookbook for Beginners: 50 Step-by-Step Recipes for Plant-Based based sandwiches” (Rockridge Press, $15). All you need, according to Sekine, who teaches how to make sushi both IRL and through his YouTube channel, is a bamboo rolling mat, a sharp knife, a few empty sauce bottles, and a special rice cooker.

Chef Bryan Sekine's 2021 cookbook teaches sushi newbies how to use ingredients like sweet potatoes, cucumbers, avocado and tofu to make vegetable rolls.  (Callisto Media)
Bryan Sekine’s 2021 cookbook teaches sushi newbies how to use ingredients like sweet potatoes, cucumbers, avocado, and tofu to make vegetable rolls. (Rockridge press)

Sekine has been working in the sushi world since 2008, but in recent years felt the pull to make his rolls vegan. Certain fish, such as freshwater eels, are listed as endangered species in other countries, he notes, and the cost of seafood has doubled and sometimes even tripled. COVID and the resulting supply chain issues didn’t help.

“It wasn’t just takeout boxes and Dr. Pepper that were in short supply,” he says.

Along with mirin, soy sauce, and sake—the holy trinity of Japanese cuisine—you’ll want nori, cucumber, and avocado on hand, sweet potato for color and sweetness, red bell pepper and carrot for crunch, and all the mushrooms, says Sekine . . He too uses king oysters to replicate scallops, and likes enokis for making nigiri. Don’t forget the sticky sushi rice with vinegar.

“Start with a simple avocado or cucumber roll,” he says. “You can add paprika or asparagus and build on that. Once you have mastered the technique, the sky is the limit.”

For example, his Dynamite Sushi Tower recipe is made with fried king oyster mushrooms and spicy vegan mayo, while his Sakura Hand Roll how-to is an ode to sparkling carrots, asparagus, and cucumber, accompanied by beetroot sushi rice.

At Kaiyo, a hub for Nikkei cuisine in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow and SoMA districts, vegetarian sushi is taken to another level. Nikkei food applies Japanese techniques to Peruvian ingredients – think tropical fish, pumpkin, aji amarillo. Together with owner John Park, chef Alex Reccio and his team explore the intersection of the two cultures with dishes such as vegetarian tiradito, a Peruvian version of sashimi they offer with roasted golden beets, vegan tigre de leche and togarashi.

While the vegetarian sushi roll menu is small — just six rolls and growing — it’s ambitious, with ingredients like compressed pears, puffed quinoa, and Andean smoked black salt. For fall, Reccio created a seasonal roll that prominently featured kabocha pumpkin. Mixed with onions, garlic, aji amarillo and dashi stock, the squash is mashed and then swept across the plate with flair.

Kaiyo's new Kabocha Mushroom Roll celebrates the best of Nikkei cuisine - and it's vegetarian.  (Thanks Kaiyo)
Kaiyo’s new Kabocha Mushroom Roll celebrates the best of Nikkei cuisine – and it’s vegetarian. (Thanks Kaiyo)

The “filling” of the bun is made with three kinds of roasted mushrooms, ginger, cream cheese and crispy avocado. The finishing touch: a piece of compressed kabocha draped on top of the roll. To make that, Reccio steams the squash with spices and garlic, then vacuum-packs it—compression locks in the flavor—before slicing the squash paper-thin.