Sushi is probably one of my top 5 favorite foods. Ever. The problem is that good vegan sushi is very VERY hard to find. And if you do find it, it’s ridiculously overpriced considering you’re just eating rice and veggies.
In my pre-vegan days, being the glutton I am, one of my favorite ways to hang out with my friends was to meet them for all-you-can-eat sushi. We would spend hours just stuffing our faces with copious amounts of rolls and talking with our mouths full. Being big eaters, we never ordered anything light or delicate. We weren’t interested in the art of sushi making or the freshness of fish. No. We could really care less about the “fish”. We were all about the spicy mayo, and the tempura. Basically, our favorite rolls were the ones with at least one deep fried element inside, and at least two sauces outside. It wasn’t about the delicate balance of flavors, so much as the umami bombs that some of these rolls were. I loved anything with “yum yum” sauce, which is pretty much a sriracha and mayo sauce, and I loved anything with the spicy crab mixture, which is why my first vegan sushi video was a take on a spicy crab roll.
Now, as a vegan, going to a traditional sushi restaurant just isn’t that interesting. The few times that I’ve been, I’ve been relegated to eating iterations of cucumber and avocado rolls or inari sushi. Both of which I can get down with, however I miss the days of the sushi overkill that I once loved.
There are a few places in the world that are doing the world of vegan sushi justice; my favorite being Shizen in San Francisco. However delicious it may be, though, my biggest issue with that place is that I don’t live in San Francisco. A couple of restaurants recently opened up here in Las Vegas that serve vegan sushi, but they charge over $10 per roll. As delicious as these rolls may be, one can’t really afford to buy more than one at that price. And who wants to eat just one roll?!
My last sushi recipe was quite simple. It was basically two ingredients (tofu and mayo) mixed together, and then rolled in rice and nori. Although this roll was super delicious, it didn’t have the grandeur that I have been looking for from vegan sushi.
So, I searched the menus of the sushi restaurants I used to frequent. Which rolls were my favorite? Which roll is the perfect representation of what sushi meant to me? Which roll symbolizes everything I loved about sushi?
Then I saw it: The dragon roll.
In my experience, the inside of a dragon roll is filled with avocado and cucumber, although I have had exceptional versions that have had tempura shrimp or crab mix inside. On top of the rolls are thin slices of avocado and baked eel. Eel is far from the most appetizing food, for many many reasons, but the salty and fatty meat is drenched in “eel sauce” (a sweeter, thicker cousin of teriyaki sauce), which makes it an integral part of the roll. The rolls are then topped off with spicy mayo, tempura crumbs, and sometimes smelt roe. Incredible.
I’m obviously not going to put eel on a roll. So which vegetable most resembles an eel? Which vegetable could most easily duplicate that flavor and texture?
I wasn’t the only one to ask this question, and after a few clicks I was staring at a few recipes for eggplant eel. I scrolled through them, got some general ideas, and then I set to work on making my own version.
After a day of tests and tweaks, I had a recipe for eggplant eel. It’s actually a fairly simple process, and the result is something that doesn’t taste like eel per se, but it’s a carrier for the real star of the show which is that eel sauce.
Once I had the recipe for the “eel”, then I had the recipe for vegan dragon rolls. And do you know what else I had? I had a recipe for vegan caterpillar rolls as well. Caterpillar rolls just place the “eel” from the top of the dragon roll, and put it inside. The top is covered in only avocado (and sauces), which helps it to resemble a green caterpillar.
So, follow this recipe. Make yourself some eggplant eel, and experient with placement on and inside your favorite sushi rolls. Additionally, you should definitely thrown that spicy tofu “crab” inside your rolls and truly gild the lily. I definitely encourage it.
This is the complete recipe for a veganized version of the popular dragon sushi roll. This recipe substitutes baked eggplant for the eel, and features cucumber, avocado, and a vegan spicy mayo sauce.
- 1 ½ cups uncooked sushi or short grain white rice
- 3 to 4 tablespoons seasoned sushi rice vinegar
- ¼ cup Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
- ¼ cup vegan white sugar
- ¼ cup mirin
- 2 tablespoon water
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon Splash dark soy sauce (optional)
- Eel sauce
- 2 Chinese or Japanese eggplants - you really want the long lighter purple ones.
- ¼ cup vegan mayo
- 1 tablespoon sriracha
- Salt and sugar to taste
- About 3 cups cooked sushi rice
- 4 Toasted nori sheets
- Eggplant eel
- 2 avocados
- 1 cucumber
- Spicy mayo
- Eel sauce
- Sesame seeds
- Vegan smelt roe (sold as Red Seaweed Pearls from Ikea)
- toasted panko crumbs
I use a rice cooker. For me, that produces the best and most consistent results. If you don’t have a rice cooker, just follow the package directions on whatever sushi rice you purchased. I also prefer to use pre-seasoned sushi vinegar. It’s a time saver, and I find that most brands have a pretty solid salty/sweet/acidy balance. When the rice is cooked, just toss it with a few tablespoons to a quarter cup of sushi vinegar. Allow the rice to then cool, covered, until it is cool enough to handle it with your hands.
- Combine all of the sauce ingredients small saucepan or pot. Bring the mixture up to a simmer, stirring often to make sure that the sugar and cornstarch dissolve, and that nothing is burning to the bottom of the pan. Keep an eye on it to make sure that it doesn’t boil over. Allow the sauce to lightly simmer and thicken for about 5 minutes, or until viscous and slightly reduced. Remove from the pan, and place into a sealable container.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit (for convection).
- Using a mandolin (and cutting gloves!), slice the eggplant into long ¼ inch thick slices. If you don’t have a mandolin, or are scared by using the mandolin to cut long strips, you can just cut the eggplant into ¼ thick discs. The final “eel” diamond shape effect will be lost, but the flavor and texture will still be there.
- Place the strips of eggplant onto an parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet, and then brush on a thin layer of the eel sauce. The sauce is very sugary, and can burn if it puddles on the mat. Take care not to get too much sauce on the mat, or things could get slightly smokey.
- Cook the eggplant strips at 350 for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, flip over, apply eel sauce to the other side, and then return to the oven for about 10 more minutes. There will be some unavoidable caramelization of the sauce, and it may even seem burnt. It’s ok.
Remove the eggplant from the oven, and allow it to cool slightly before you start to cut it.
I find a ratio of about ¼ cup vegan mayo to a tablespoon of sriracha does the trick. I have been making my own aquafaba mayo using The Minimalist Baker’s recipe. It’s a slightly sweet mayo, which mimics the Kewpie mayo that many sushi restaurants use. If you’re just using store bought vegan mayo, I would add just a pinch of sugar to the mix. You don’t want it to read as “sweet”, but it helps to balance out the flavors.
- Peel and seed your cucumber, and slice it into long, thin strips. Cut your avocado in half. You should be able to get about two rolls per avocado. Skin one half of the avocado, and then slice it into very thin slices. These thin slices will be used for the top of the rolls. Don’t worry about cutting up the other half, you’ll just be spooning the meat out to be used in the center of the rolls.
Lay a sheet of nori, shiny side down, onto your sushi mat. If you are using a bamboo mat, make sure you cover it with plastic wrap. Wet your hands, and then apply about ½ to ¾ cup of rice to the rough side of the nori. Break up any clumps of rice with your hands and distribute the rice evenly around the nori. It’s ok if there are a few places you can still see the nori. You don’t want to over-do it with the rice, and you definitely don’t want to pack it down. Lightly sprinkle the rice with toasted sesame seeds.
Flip your rice covered nori over so you can see the shiny side. Place a row of avocado and a row of cucumber about an inch or two from the edge closest to you. If you would like to add other veggies, or even baked tofu, you definitely can. Begin to roll by folding the end closest to your body over the filling, tucking it under the filling, and then continuing to roll, using the mat to guide and slightly press down. When the roll is complete, drape the mat over the roll, and press down from the top and sides, to help secure and even out the roll.
- Slice your eggplant eel into long oblong diamond shaped pieces. Add a layer of the thin avocado slices to the top of the roll, followed by a layer of the eggplant eel. Drape the mat over the covered roll, and then press from the top and sides again to secure the toppings. Note: The eggplant is a bit tough to cut onces it’s on top of the roll. Plan the placement of your eggplant so that when you slice your rolls, you don’t have to slice through the eggplant.
Cut the roll into 8 equal pieces, cleaning your knife with a damp towel in between cuts. Plate the roll in a slightly arched shape. Finish off with a generous drizzle or brush of the eel sauce, a drizzle of the spicy may, a few dollops of vegan roe, and a sprinkling of crispy panko crumbs.
After you add your avocado and cucumber, place a few strips of the eggplant eel inside. This is a good place to use any slices that are torn or imperfect that you don't want on the outside of your roll. Roll it up, and top with thin slices of avocado. Top with a generous brushing of eel sauce, a drizzle of the spicy mayo, a few dollops of vegan roe, and a sprinkling of crispy panko crumbs.