At Kiku Sushi & Vegetarian, a hidden gem in Lafayette where the restaurant’s whiteboard showcases fresh, seasonal fish flown in directly from Japan, there is a growing list of plant-based sushi rolls impressing pescatarians, vegans and vegetarians alike.
Chef-owner Sophia Batsaikhan’s tasty creations — a dragon roll made with sweet potato tempura, avocado and eggplant instead of eel; spicy tuna reinterpreted as marinated tomato and seven-spice powder — are part of a growing movement among Bay Area sushi chefs to address seafood sustainability and make plant-based eaters feel welcome.
In addition to Kiku, restaurants like San Francisco’s Kaiyō and the Sushi Confidential mini chain in San Jose, Campbell and Morgan Hill, are infusing their menus with sashimi, nigiri, maki and temaki made with ingredients like pickled burdock root, compressed pear and tofu-cashew wasabi cream. The cutting-edge techniques, freshest ingredients and Japanese seasonings yield sushi that doesn’t skimp on beauty or flavor, even without the fish.
Batsaikhan, who opened Kiku Lafayette in 2021 and also helms the kitchen at its 12-year-old sister restaurant in Berkeley, first noticed the demand for vegetarian rolls about six years ago.
“Sushi lovers would come in with their vegetarian friends, and all they could eat was a cucumber roll,” she says. “I wanted all of my customers to experience great sushi. So we started to experiment with different ingredients and flavors, and to taste everything.”
Today, the menu features 24 types of sushi made from plants, not to mention a large selection of vegetarian gyoza, soba, salads and soups, including a stunning mushroom soup in a clear, delicate broth. Thanks to their texture and natural umami, mushrooms play a prominent role in many vegetarian sushi programs, and Kiku’s is no exception.
Baked king mushrooms stand in for scallops on the vegan baked scallop roll, which gets added umami from seaweed pearls and a spicy sauce. Batsaikhan transforms tomato into a dead-ringer for spicy tuna by marinating the tomato for two days in soy sauce and other ingredients to get that reddish-brown color. She and her team use tofu in lieu of crab, and their seaweed salad is not the neon stuff from a tub but a lively, made-to-order dish using six types of seaweed.
“Typical wakame is made from seaweed roots and often comes from a factory,” she says. “I want people to have that feeling of everything being fresh and well-made.”
You can make these rolls at home, too, if you have the right tools, says sushi chef Bryan Sekine, the whiz behind Secrets of Sushi and author of 2021’s “Vegetarian & Vegan Sushi Cookbook for Beginners: 50 Step-by-Step Recipes for Plant-Based Rolls” (Rockridge Press, $15). All you need, according to Sekine, who teaches sushi-making both IRL and via his YouTube channel, is a bamboo rolling mat, a sharp knife, a few empty sauce bottles and a dedicated rice cooker.
Sekine has worked in the sushi world since 2008, but felt the pull toward vegan-izing his rolls in the past few years. Certain fish, like freshwater eel, have made the endangered list in other countries, he notes, and seafood costs have doubled and sometimes tripled in cost. COVID and the resulting supply chain issues didn’t help.
“It wasn’t just take-out boxes and Dr. Pepper that were in short supply,” he says.
Along with mirin, soy sauce and sake — the holy trinity of Japanese cooking — you’ll want nori, cucumber and avocado on hand, sweet potato for color and sweetness, red bell pepper and carrot for crunch, and all the mushrooms, Sekine says. He, too, uses king oysters to replicate scallops, and likes enokis for making nigiri. Don’t forget the sticky, vinegared sushi rice.
“Start with a simple avocado or cucumber roll,” he says. “You can add bell pepper or asparagus and build on that. Once you get the technique down, the sky’s the limit.”
His Dynamite Sushi Tower recipe, for example, is made with fried king oyster mushrooms and spicy vegan mayo, while his Sakura Hand Roll how-to celebrates sprightly carrots, asparagus and cucumber set off by beet-stained sushi rice.
At Kaiyo, a hub for Nikkei cuisine in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow and SoMA districts, vegetarian sushi is taken to another level. Nikkei food applies Japanese techniques to Peruvian ingredients — think tropical fish, squash, aji amarillo. Together with owner John Park, executive chef Alex Reccio and his team explore the intersection of the two cultures with dishes like vegetarian tiradito, a Peruvian take on sashimi they offer with roasted golden beets, vegan tigre de leche and togarashi.
While the vegetarian sushi roll menu is small — just six rolls, and growing — it is ambitious, with ingredients such as compressed pears, puffed quinoa and smoked Andean black salt. For fall, Reccio created a seasonal roll that prominently features kabocha squash. Mixed with onions, garlic, aji amarillo and dashi broth, the squash is pureed, then swiped across the plate with flair.
The roll’s “stuffing” is made using three types of roasted mushrooms, ginger, cream cheese and crispy avocado. The final touch: A piece of compressed kabocha draped on top of the roll. To make that, Reccio steams the squash with herbs and garlic then vacuum packs it — compression locks in flavor — before slicing the squash paper-thin.
“I like things with texture, so we top this roll with crispy vermicelli noodles quickly fried in hot oil,” he says. “Colors are important for me, too. I like my food to be yummy just by looking at it.”
Currently, Reccio is experimenting with blanched napa cabbage as a stand-in for nori, and green plantains, which he marinates, slow-roasts and slices to mimic the look and taste of unagi.
“I think it’s fun to create a full experience like you are eating real fish,” he says. “There are so many opportunities to create robust and bright flavors.”