There is an inherent satisfaction in eating fish, from the subtle fattiness of smoked salmon to the sweet flesh and salty crunch of fried cod to the moist brininess of raw tuna. For vegans who miss fish, or omnivores trying to eat less over health or environmental concerns, or even strict observers of Lent, it’s challenging to find a plant-based version that’s as good as Beyond Meat’s take on beef. Some restaurants do offer vegan seafood selections, but that’s not the case everywhere—especially now that so many have been impacted by COVID-19. And while there are lots of vegan fish recipes online, sometimes it’s just easier to use something pre-made.
In my perpetual search for delicious plant-based fare, I decided to investigate whether any of the store-bought fish substitutes were any good. Recognizing that no vegan fish would perfectly mirror its counterpart from under the sea—they’re limited by the ingredient options—I assessed how well each substitute resembled fish in both flavor and texture. I stuck to the cooking directions unless there weren’t any, in which I went with pan-frying on medium with canola oil. I also went with choices that were relatively easy to get, either in grocery stores or online. That left me with Gardein, Good Catch, Loving Hut, Sophie’s Kitchen, and May Wah, all frozen selections. Each one served up a different interpretation of fish. Here’s what I found.
Gardein’s offering, which comes in packs of six pieces, had the slightly sweet scent and flavor of a very mild white fish, with some flakiness. The exterior breading reminded me somewhat of a tempura, though the crispness wasn’t quite as consistent as I’d hoped. Taste-wise, it was adequately salted and had a definite hushpuppy vibe: a pleasant balance of salt, sugar, and corn.
The mouthfeel and flavor of the fish itself were reminiscent of Morningstar Farms Vegan Chick’n Nuggets: chicken nugget-like in terms of flavor, texture, and size, but not super analogous to poultry in terms of flavor. It was satisfying, but it didn’t exactly reinvent the plant-based-meat wheel. Altogether, the shape and texture had the overall effect of a Filet-o-Fish sandwich if it were served in McNugget form. Gardein wasn’t all that fishy—the adjectives that come up the most in my notes for this pick are various forms of “sweet”—but it worked.
When I started cooking Good Catch’s fish burgers, the fishy smell was strikingly strong. It was like I was pan-frying very pungent crab cakes. But these patties mostly delivered on the promise of the packaging: “real seafood taste” and a “flaky whitefish texture.” They developed a pleasantly crispy exterior. The first bite was impressive: the interior was indeed flaky like whitefish, albeit with a slight mushiness.
I chewed slowly in order to get a better handle on the flavors. Celery and lemon were the most prominent. The flesh of the “fish” itself—a mix of pea protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, chickpea flour, faba protein, lentil protein, soy protein isolate, and navy bean powder—was mild. After a while, though, the fish part felt less spectacular; I could taste the legumes more clearly. When I added Old Bay seasoning, however, the overall effect was great.
This “fish” smelled very briny right out of the package. It was dense as a steak or thick fillet in my hand, with a slightly slimy texture. Little scales were etched into the black seaweed “skin.” There weren’t any detailed cooking instructions on the package, only “suggestions,” so I decided to heat it over the stove on medium with canola oil, in an attempt to crisp the exterior without burning. After about five minutes on each side, the skin took on a slight crunch.
In terms of taste, this selection was similar in flavor to a very muted tilapia. The texture of the soybean-curd base reminded me of many vegan drumsticks, a bit springy but otherwise neutral. Although it didn’t dominate my taste buds, the flavor and mouthfeel were quite pleasant. I’d definitely eat this one again, but next time, I would add a little more oomph. It would be fantastic sliced on a bun, with a cilantro-laden mango slaw.
The crispy, golden-brown exterior of Sophie’s Kitchen’s fish fillets—which were actually more like patties—looked promising right out of the pan. The thin, light breading needed a bit of salt, but the first bite had a satisfying toastiness. The fillets themselves had an almost chickeny texture. I was surprised that they weren’t made of wheat gluten but rather a pea protein and pea starch base.
The mild seasonings—including turmeric, white pepper, sea salt, and ginger—created a seafood vibe even though this wasn’t a particularly fishy item. It was good enough to eat plain—my notes actually said “could eat with bare hands nothing else”—and I wound up doing just that.
Right out of the package, these five frozen slices smelled like lox and had the slightly fatty texture of smoked salmon. The fillets were made of soy and wheat protein and encased in a seaweed skin. After cooking them on medium heat for a few minutes (this package also lacked detailed cooking instructions) I dug in. There was a subtle fishy taste that intensified over time, but the texture was bouncy, not flaky. The mouthfeel felt a bit like canned chunks of ham.
While the slices had a pleasingly toasted flavor—not dissimilar from the wonderful greasiness of a fish fry—they needed a boost of some sort. Sometimes, it seemed like the flavor approached Tofurky cold-cuts. I didn’t feel like making vegan Tartar sauce, so I tried the next best thing: putting these slices into a sandwich with Vegenaise and dill pickle chips. This turned out quite well; the condiments provided the umami punch these slices seemed to lack on their own.
Overall, there are some excellent options for diners who want vegan fish. None of the five options I tried was super fishy. Each had a satisfying mouthfeel and flavor, but most needed a sprinkle of seasoning or a dollop of sauce. They worked, but generally required some effort to reach their maximum potential.
That said, I’d readily indulge in any of these options again. Never one to shy away from salt or sauce, I’m certain that a bit more experimentation could get any of these selections close to plant-based perfection.