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Ask anyone what they think is sushi's magic ingredient. Most will say «the freshest possible fish». But what would happen if this magic ingredient was unavailable? It's not an easy question to answer but one which is increasingly relevant. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes: «For every ten tuna, sharks and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left. Many scientists predict the collapse of all fished species in less than fifty years.»
Brighton's most popular sushi restaurant Moshi Moshi is renowned for its work in fish conservation and actively promotes ethical consumption. «It's at the centre of what we do. It's embedded within our philosophy,» says co-owner Nicholas Rohl, who believes the only answer to preventing the sharp decrease in fish stocks is to reduce the number of fish caught.
Promoting "restorative eating" – increasing the amount of vegan and vegetarian food in each dish and decreasing the amount of animal and fish protein – is a key part of reaching this goal. So Moshi Moshi teamed up with Redwood, the vegan food company owned by Heather Mills, for The Great Moshi Vegan Challenge. Eight chefs from some of Brighton's top restaurants went head-to-head to create the best sushi using only ingredients suitable for a vegan diet. Attendees scrutinised the taste and presentation of each dish and voted for their favourite.
There are few better places than Moshi Moshi to unwind after a hot late summer's day. With its dark benches and low light, it is an intimate mix of contemporary and traditional style. Spacious and elegant, with its glass panels raised, it invites the evening breeze in. On the walls are pictures of naked celebrities cradling marlin and tuna, part of the Fishlove Photographic Project set up by the restaurant.
The dishes at The Great Moshi Vegan Challenge matched this fusion. Faux duck, chicken and miso cheese took the place of fish but each dish retained the look and feel of orthodox sushi.
Donna Vargas of Moshi Moshi made a simple and delicious faux duck maki with avocado and strawberry jus, which even amongst the restaurant's usual menu would be plucked from the conveyor belt at the first opportunity.
Cashew Catering chef John Bayley's entry was more adventurous: vegan duck, mushroom and vegan cheese gyoza with squash and white miso sauce, topped with a vegan cheese and kale crisp; a wasabi and vegan cheese foam, sweet chilli and ginger jelly with vegan chicken goujon.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the versatility of the faux duck. Used in five of the seven dishes, it was combined with kale, ginger, grapefruit, sansho pepper, boshi jelly and shiitake mushrooms. The faux duck grounded the flavours in each dish and never overpowered. It was also the basis for the winning dish, Alun Sperring's duck chettinad (A region in the South of India). Sperring added mango and nut sauce and red chilli chutney to give the sushi a kick familiar to the Indian food he serves at Chilli Pickle.
The duck chettinad may have caught the imagination of the attendees for its taste, but there was a bigger issue for many. Jojo Huxster blogs about being a vegan in Brighton and runs a not-for-profit vegan bakery from her home. The extensive cupcake menu is made only with vegan ingredients. She attended The Great Moshi Vegan Challenge with her husband Nick. «Not many restaurants offer vegan and non-vegan food,» Jojo told me. Moshi Moshi is one of the few restaurants in the city vegans can go to with friends who eat meat, knowing everyone will get a good meal.
Also in attendance was Heather Mills, representing her restaurant V-Bites, in nearby Hove, and Redwood, which has been voted the UK's most ethical vegetarian food company for the last six years by the The Ethical Company Organisation. V-Bites contributed dessert: a light cake of jasmine and green tea and vegan cheese with a green tea and almond sponge base. Each attendee also received a free packet of Redwood's faux duck. This "meatless meat" forms a significant portion of the V-Bites menu. «Eighty percent of people who come to V-Bites are meat-eaters,» says Ms Mills. «Most will sit there for two hours after a hotdog and won't know it's not meat.»
The substitute also plays an important role in the Hunts Point Alliance, Ms Mills's charity campaign in the Bronx, New York which feeds 3,000 children a week. «You can't get kids who have lived on burgers and chips their whole lives to eat broccoli overnight,» she says. Instead, the children go through a transition period of eating "meatless meat" on their way to a full vegan lifestyle which includes growing their own fruit and vegetables in small farms built by the charity.
The campaign is informed by The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, which examined the relationship between the consumption of animal products and illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The study showed a correlation between a plant-based diet and a 42% increase in cognitive function, and a decrease in obesity from 70% of those studied to 30%. Participants with type 1 diabetes reduced their insulin dependency to one or two injections per day; those with type 2 diabetes were able to discontinue their use of insulin altogether while following a plant-based diet.
Ms Mills believes the nutritional benefits of "alternative" diets such as veganism, and diets for lactose-intolerant and glucose-intolerant people should inform our judgements of food in restaurants.
So the reasoning is clear. Veganism is both a huge contribution to the ethical consumption of fish and other animal protein and a potential solution to diseases common to a western diet. But is that enough to convince the sceptics? It is worth noting that, bar the food critics and representatives of other restaurants, the vast majority of those at The Great Moshi Vegan Challenge were already either vegans or vegetarians. Moshi Moshi and Redwood may be preaching to the converted, but that they are preaching at all is admirable.
If more demonstrated their commitment to ethical consumption, it may not be long before the idea of vegan sushi is much less like a fish out of water.