At this point in my life, I’ve tried lots of vegan meat substitutes. I’ve had plenty of beef and chicken replacements, most of which I’m a fan of, as they do a serviceable job imitating the real thing. But seafood is one category for which I’ve struggled to find a decent plant-based alternative.
It’s not for lack of trying: I’ve tasted plant-based tuna as well as vegetarian shrimp substitutes, and neither quite hit the spot. Both were made of pea protein, which, unfortunately, has a distinct aroma and chew that will never closely resemble what it’s attempting to imitate. Seafood is a delicate protein, and recreating a convincing facsimile has been a challenge for innovators in the space. But one company is out to make realistic plant-based fish that’s fit for use in dumplings, fried dishes, and even my favorite: sushi.
Chicago-based Aqua Cultured Foods is in the (ambitious) process of developing a vegan equivalent of whole muscle cuts of raw fish. The idea is to use fermented mycelium, aka fungi. But it’s not the fruiting body of the fungus, the portion we’re used to eating, otherwise known as the stem and the cap. Mycelium is essentially the root structure of a mushroom: the filament-like foundation supporting the fruiting body beneath the surface of the soil.
Using an exclusive fermentation process, Aqua Cultured Foods is able to create a product that looks and tastes like raw seafood. Just how the company does it remains a trade secret, but it starts with a bed of organic matter which is nurtured to encourage microbial growth. A strain of fungi is introduced, and eventually the product becomes a protein resembling whole cuts of seafood.
I visited the company’s headquarters in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago as one the first journalists to try the product. I was given a brief tour of the space by Aqua Cultured co-founders Anne Palermo and Brittany Chibe that highlighted a lab, kitchen, and planned production area; the company recently expanded into the space in order to accommodate future production.
Chibe explained that the company’s mission “is to create delicious, nutrient-rich foods to feed our growing population and protect our oceans.” Both she and Palermo spoke with concern about the current state of ocean health, and the two explained that addressing the issue is more complicated than just eating lighter. Fish are susceptible to contamination from pollution such as microplastics, which pose greater risk than ever to the food supply.
The team assembled some tuna rolls using the company’s whole muscle cut product, as well as some dumplings filled with vegan minced shrimp. Chibe explained that the mycelium material is initially flavorless, but after working with companies that specialize in food flavoring, Aqua Cultured Foods has determined which flavors to add to the product in order to give it the proper seafood taste.
The first thing I noticed was that the vegan fish material was colorless; I was informed that the tuna version would eventually be colored with a beet extract in order to give it a mild pink hue. And though I was provided with soy sauce and wasabi paste for dipping, I wanted to try the product in its purest form possible, so I just ate the rolls as they were.
That first bite had me a little puzzled at first, mostly because I could immediately tell it wasn’t quite like regular raw fish. The tuna substitute had a slight snappy, gel-like property to it, and it lacked the fibrous muscle strands you’d experience when biting into raw tuna.
As I slowly made my way through the rest of the sushi pieces, an interesting thing happened: I started to feel like was I really was eating a tuna roll. By the time I arrived at the fourth and final piece, the fact that this was a vegan fish substitute had all but faded to the back of my mind. The last piece, coincidentally, had the largest portion of the tuna substitute in it, and because of that, it felt the most like sushi.
I could definitely taste the delicate aftertaste of the product, carefully calibrated by Aqua Cultured Foods to signal a fresh fish flavor. Would this pass for something you’d eat at Nobu? No. But it’d definitely be right at home in many of sushi’s other contexts, such as a grocery store counter.
The dumplings, on the other hand, were filled with a minced shrimp substitute, which weren’t quite as successful. It wasn’t that any of it tasted “wrong,” per se, but in the context of dumpling filler, it was hard to identify this substance as imitation shrimp. I’m happy to say it still tasted just fine; it just could have contained any vegetarian filling, such as tofu, and that would have been equally satisfying. The Aqua Cultured shrimp didn’t make or break the dumpling in any way, and maybe that’s the point.
Having a food writer taste this stuff on site at the facility was one thing, but the public’s opinion is a different matter, so there are rounds of consumer testing in the works. Chibe said the company hopes to have 200-250 people try the plant-based fish for feedback purposes, and the brand is planning taste tests at its Chicago headquarters in April. (Anyone interested in participating can sign up for Aqua Cultured’s mailing list, which is how the tastings will be announced.)
You might think that what Aqua Cultured Foods is doing sits in a very niche market, but there’s already been some early interest in where the company is headed. Migros, a leading supermarket chain in Switzerland, began working with Aqua Cultured in 2021 to assess how Swiss customers would accept the product’s introduction. The product is about to hit shelves at those stores soon (but isn’t there quite yet).
As for the United States, the brand first plans to roll out via foodservice, along with chef and restaurant partners, and then hopes to move to grocery store sushi counters. The first products to market will be whole cuts of tuna for raw applications, minced tuna for spicy tuna rolls, minced shrimp for applications like dumplings, and whole cuts of scallop, all built off the fermented mycelium base.
Is imitation tuna enough to put a dent into our overburdened oceans? That’s the question we’ll need to answer within the next decade. I could certainly see Aqua Cultured’s products doing well at a retailer like Whole Foods, where the demand for plant-based food (and planet-conscious products) is already high. A few hurdles will have to be cleared for this product to succeed: Customers need to be educated on what vegan fish is and what it’s made of, but most importantly, it’s got to taste pretty damn good.