Trompe L’oeil Tuna

Let your conscience be your guide.

The pan-seared tuna steak arrived pink and sizzling and smelling of the sea. From the very first bite, the steak flaked in my mouth, and its briny tang delighted my tongue. But something was fishy, and it wasn’t the tuna. Despite what my senses were telling me, I was eating soy.

All across the Bay Area, vegetarians and vegans are dining on imitation meat: tofu and gluten that’s been dressed up to look, smell, and taste like animal flesh. Why do people who’ve sworn off meat seek out substitutes? And how do chefs turn bland, rubbery tofu into startlingly good imitations of beef, chicken, pork, and seafood?

The first question is easy to answer, at least for myself. I’ve been a vegetarian for five years. I stopped eating meat because the factory-farming methods used to raise and slaughter food animals are cruel and ecologically catastrophic. But carnivorous cravings still lurk in my guts, whispering sweet nothings about double cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and sweet-and-sour pork. Imitation meat satisfies those urges without compromising my values.

And if the growing variety of veggie burgers and fake chicken nuggets in supermarket freezers is any indication, I’m not the only one seeking meat substitutes. Some are bad and some are terrific — in the hands of a clever chef, an innocuous slab of tofu can masquerade as a succulent heap of ribs.

That leads me to the second question: how chefs turn soy into animal flesh. Even as I dined on my tofu tuna steak, I was reluctant to investigate. Surely the transformation involved hideous concoctions of chemicals, additives, and MSG. My fake steak was probably worse for my health than a hot dog.

Dreading a discovery that could cause me to swear off fake meat in addition to the real thing, I peeked into the restaurant’s kitchen. All I saw was a long steel shelf full of spices and seasonings — black pepper, salt, oregano, paprika, and so on. The most suspect item was an industrial-size bottle of Wishbone salad dressing. So how in the world did plain tofu get the look, smell, and taste of fish? I decided to ask the guy who cooked it.

Panos Ly is the owner and head chef at New World Vegetarian restaurant in Oakland. He’s been cooking professionally for nineteen years, training originally under a Sicilian chef in San Francisco. He’s also cooked in Mexican and Brazilian restaurants; needless to say, Ly has worked with a lot of meat.

That changed ten years ago, when he became a serious practitioner of meditation and was inspired by his master to give up meat, fish, and fowl. “We don’t support killing,” says Ly. “All meditators want to be pure. If you eat meat, it’s like putting hate in your body.”

But rather than give up on the taste of meat, he went into his kitchen and began creating imitations. His primary ingredients are soy and gluten, which is derived from wheat and has a starchy, chewy texture. He experimented with various seasonings, sauces, and other ingredients, eventually coming up with an entire menu’s worth of animal substitutes.

For instance, a beefsteak starts with a precise combination of soy and gluten to get the chewy texture. Ginger, onion, garlic, and five-spice seasoning add flavor, as do coriander seed and star anise. Maple syrup gives the dish its color, and then Ly may add natural smoke flavoring. Top it off with barbecue sauce, and you’ve got a meal that would pass muster in Crawford, Texas.

Ly says that seafood is the most difficult to imitate. When I asked about the tuna steak, he said it was made from fresh bean curd, and that steaming the steak over seaweed gives it its fish-like smell and flavor. He says New World doesn’t do shrimp or prawns because they require egg, and all his recipes are vegan.

Ly says his customers run the gamut, from hard-core vegans to meat lovers willing to cross the culinary tracks. The meat-eaters are Ly’s favorites. He loves to wow a tableful of carnivores with his tasty masquerades, and he also hopes to win a few converts.

“My goal is to help people become vegetarian,” says Ly. “If we don’t create beef or chicken dishes, people wouldn’t switch. But because they can have the taste of meat, they can become vegetarians.”

Yes and no. Not all vegetarians are interested in Ly’s creations. My wife, who hasn’t eaten an animal in sixteen years, thinks the whole idea is revolting. After grimacing her way through a plate of curry “chicken,” she declared that fake meat would have to be one of my solitary pleasures, along with Jet Li movies and Green Day albums.

Other non-meat-eaters I’ve talked to regard imitation meat as a sneaky loophole, a violation not of the letter but the spirit of a vegetarian’s vows. They compare it to a married man who carries around pictures of an old girlfriend; technically he’s not cheating on his wife, but you have to wonder about his commitment.

I don’t see it that way. It’s not as if I’d go back to eating real burgers if the soy variety didn’t exist. Fake meat isn’t methadone; I don’t use it to keep from mainlining roast beef. Even though the occasional Burger King commercial may tempt me, I’d be content to eat steamed vegetables for the rest of my life if imitation meat disappeared into a culinary black hole.

But I don’t have to. Thanks to chefs like Ly, I can enjoy variety in my diet while holding true to my principles. Whether the tofu arrives at the table in small white cubes or dressed as a turkey leg, I haven’t harmed any animals. You could say that imitation meat lets me have my steak and eat it too.

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