No Fish Were Harmed—Vegan Sushi Rolls and My Oooh-Nagi (Vegan Unagi) Recipe!
Alan and I love sushi! People often think it’s a food they’ll never have again once they change to a vegan lifestyle or Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB) way of eating, but it’s simply not true. There are a lot of vegetable sushi rolls available at most sushi restaurants and many of them are super inventive! You can also make your own sushi at home, with just some low-cost supplies you can pick up at your local Asian grocery market or Amazon, like this bamboo sushi roller. And once you have the stuff, any time is sushi time! It’s great for parties too, as an appetizer or main course, or make it a roll-your-own sushi party and have friends bring components for a fun evening together.
Earlier this month I made sushi for my local Duvall Chamber of Commerce meeting. Businesses take turns providing the food for the social mixer and I was thrilled to do it for Earth month! (You may recall that I did this last year too, with a different menu, including my Snickers Bites, which another Chamber member renamed Crack Bites!) I decided it would be fun to make sushi for the group, something everyone equates to seafood. This year’s menu included:
Crispy Miso-glazed Purple Sweet Potato Roll
Spicy Tomato Tuna Roll
Teriyaki Shiitake Mushroom and Asparagus Roll
Rainbow Roll with Carrot Lox and Eggplant Unagi (Oooh-nagi)
Watermelon Poke in Lettuce Cups
Asian-Flavor Chocolate Pots de Creme
It was a success! People were amazed that it was all plant-based!
I’m particularly happy with how my vegan unagi (oooh-nagi) recipe turned out. Unagi was one of Alan’s favorite sushi items and he was really missing it. A year ago I’d tried a version using Burmese tofu that you make with Besan (chickpea flour), but it wasn’t very successful for me. But we were at a vegan Thai restaurant in Seattle recently (Kati Vegan Thai) enjoying a dish of their wonderful Pad Makua, a stir-fried eggplant dish, and suddenly the eggplant seemed a lot like unagi, and I got inspired!
So here’s how to make my Oooh-nagi, Vegan Unagi
The key to making oooh-nagi is the eel sauce. And here’s the amazing thing…Eel Sauce is vegan! It’s called Eel Sauce only because it’s used to glaze unagi, not that it contains eel. Don’t you just love accidentally vegan things?!? My mom’s friend calls these Oops-ortunities, great opportunities that comes from an oops!
Eel Sauce is made from soy sauce (or tamari), mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine, and sugar. I also add a crushed chunk or slices of fresh ginger because I like what the ginger adds to the eel sauce. You can find mirin either in the Asian section or specialty wine section of your grocery store, or at an Asian market. You combine all of these ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer until it reduces by half. Keep you eye on it, though, because if it starts to boil, it will quickly boil over, make a sticky mess and burn all over your stove top (imagine how I discovered that!). Once it’s reduced, let it cool. It thickens when cooled. If you don’t want to make your own eel sauce, you can buy it already made in the Asian section of your grocery store or at an Asian market. But, it’s so simple, inexpensive, and zero waste to make, why buy it? It also stores well in your refrigerator, several weeks for sure, as I generally use it up before then!
Now that you have Eel Sauce, you can make the oooh-nagi. You’ll need eggplant. I use regular Italian eggplant, but you can use any kind, including Asian eggplants. I like the large Italian ones because I only need one eggplant to make a lot of oooh-nagi and they are readily available at my local market. If you use the smaller Asian eggplants, you’ll need a couple of them due to their smaller size.
The first step is to prepare the eggplant. Peel the skin with a peeler and chop off the stem. I keep the peelings and stem end and add them to my veggie scrap bowl in the freezer for making veggie stock later. A lot of people say not to use eggplant in vegetable stock, but I have no problem with it and in fact, I think it adds a nice dark color for when you want a darker “beef” like stock. After it’s peeled, slice lengthwise into 1/4″ thick slabs. A mandolin (I’ve used this Börner mandoline for years and years and love it) makes quick work of this, but you can use a sharp knife if you don’t have one. Note, my mom got me a Microplane cut-resistant glove to wear when I’m using the mandoline, and I highly recommend it!
Place the eggplant slices in a colander in your sink and sprinkle liberally with salt, making sure all surfaces are salted. Let this set in the sink for 30 minutes and preheat your oven to 375˚F. The salt draws bitter liquid from the eggplant. Simply rinse the salt and sweated liquid off the slices after time’s up and blot the slices dry with a towel.
Now lay out your prepared eggplant slices on a baking sheet covered with a silicone mat. The silicone baking sheet is important, as it keeps the eggplant from sticking to the sheet when baking with the sticky eel sauce. It also carmellizes the sauce onto the eggplant, just like it does with broiled unagi. Brush liberally with eel sauce. Flip all the slices and coat the second side.
Pop this into your preheated 375˚F oven for 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven, brush the tops with more eel sauce, carefully flip the slices, and coat this side with eel sauce. Return to the oven for 10 more minutes.
At the end of this time, remove from the oven, flip to coat with all the caramelized sauce, add a brush or drizzle more of fresh eel sauce, and place in a dish. If it doesn’t seem to be as caramelized as you want, repeat the brushing/flipping/and baking until it’s how you like it. Use as desired! It’s great in and on sushi rolls and super chopped up and put on an Asian-inspired bowl or salad.
The texture and taste of this Eggplant Unagi is spot on! People who don’t like eggplant love this Oooh-nagi, in fact, I generally present it as “plant-based” unagi instead of eggplant just so eggplant-haters will give it a try! So, if you are someone who doesn’t like eggplant…please give it a go, I promise you’ll be trimazed!
Oooh-Nagi (Vegan Unagi, Freshwater Eel)
- 1 Italian Eggplant or several smaller Asian Eggplants
- 1 cup soy sauce
- 1 cup mirin
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 1-inch chunk of peeled fresh ginger crushed
Make Eel Sauce
- Combine the soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and ginger in a small saucepan. Stir well.
- Bring to a simmer and continue simmering until reduced by half. Cool, and store in the refrigerator.
- Peel eggplant(s).
- Slice peeled eggplants lengthwise into ¼-inch slices (a mandolin, like this one I use, is great for this).
- Place sliced eggplant into a colander and sprinkle liberally with salt. Set the colander in your sink and let the slices sweat 30 minutes. Lightly rinse and pat dry after they are done.
- Preheat your oven to 375˚F
- Brush eggplant slices liberally with eel sauce, flip, and then brush the other side. After all pieces are coated, pop in the oven for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, remove, flip, coat with additional eel sauce, and return to oven for 10 minutes. The eel sauce gets all caramelized and golden, just like unagi. If it doesn't seem to be as caramelized as you want, repeat the brushing/flipping/and baking until it's how you like it.Keep an eye on them to make sure they don't burn.
- Remove from oven and use as desired.
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Cindy wants you to be Trimazing—three times better than amazing! After improving her health and fitness through plant-based nutrition, losing 60 pounds and becoming an adult-onset athlete, she retired from her 20-year firefighting career to help people just like you. She works with people and organizations so they can reach their health and wellness goals.
Cindy Thompson is a certified Health Coach, Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, and Firefighter Peer Fitness Trainer. She is a Food for Life Instructor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Rouxbe Plant-Based Professional, and Harvard Medical School Culinary Coach, teaching people how to prepare delicious, satisfying, and health-promoting meals.
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