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The Secret Life of Veggies

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I’ve consumed so much fish in my life that sometimes I think I must have fish DNA buried deep in my cells. Either that, or one heck of a karmic reckoning in my future. When I was growing up, my father, an enthusiastic fisherman who still carries several fishing poles in his car at all times, kept a freezer full of local freshwater fish: trout, bass, perch, walleye, smelt, pike, and (before they disappeared) cod from his annual trips to Maine. My family ate fish all the time, even for breakfast.

Fast-forward 20 years, and I was eating even more fish. I was living in Japan and delighting in the quality and deliciousness of the fish-based cuisine. Nowhere in the world is fish more celebrated or more widely consumed. I ate raw fish, cooked fish, and fish that had been preserved in every conceivable way. I ate fish at almost every meal. I ate fish between meals. If Americans, as Michael Pollan has suggested, consume so many corn products that they resemble walking corn chips, then I was a walking fish fillet.

Today, I still eat fish, but I don’t eat it often, and I don’t eat much when I do. Part of the reason is undeniably that living in Japan can spoil one for eating fish; the quality of the fish eaten there is unmatched anywhere in the world. But there’s another reason I’ve cut back on my fish consumption: Gargantuan-scale industrial “fishing”—carried out by big companies that use mechanized vessels tricked out with technology to find and catch fish, usually in rarely policed ocean zones that begin outside national borders—has decimated fish stocks worldwide. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that roughly 80 percent of global fish stocks today are classified as fully exploited or overexploited. It’s not really a conscionable option anymore to eat Atlantic bluefin tuna, which may someday join pandas and tigers and enjoy protection from international trade if conservationists prevail. The same could be said for all wild salmon, most other tunas, sturgeon, Atlantic halibut, orange roughy, grouper, European eel, Chilean sea bass, any kind of cod, monkfish, and rockfish.

I asked Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice and the only “sushi concierge” in the United States, how he deals with the conscionable consumption of fish. “Sushi fits into the larger evolutionary pattern of my diet,” he told me. “I’m eating far fewer animals in general, including fish. When I do enjoy sushi, I eat it minimally and always on its own; I don’t eat fat, crazy rolls stuffed with four or five kinds of fish that can’t even be differentiated. It’s very special now.”

I haven’t completely lost my fish jones, and I don’t expect that I ever will. But these days, most of the cooking I do is vegetable based.

Layers of Flavor

What makes us crave fish? One reason is that it’s chock-full of umami, the fifth taste alongside the standard four of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami is a Japanese word that is often translated as “meaty deliciousness,” and that about sums up its appeal.

Humans crave foods that are naturally rich in umami—aged cheeses, dried mushrooms, miso, soy sauce, fish and meats in all forms, and dried seaweed. These foods satisfy like nothing else because they are packed with glutamates that radically increase salivation and leave a long, mouthwatering finish on the tongue and palate.

For fish lovers like me, of course, vegetables can’t replace fish, any more than tempeh or gluten can replace meat. Vegetables have to be enjoyed on their own merits. But vegetable-based meals, even well-prepared ones, can sometimes feel like there’s a crucial component missing. Some might conclude that it’s protein that’s lacking, but in my experience it’s actually the umami we crave, something that’s often absent in vegetarian cooking because vegetables on their own don’t contain much of this savory fifth taste.

But it is possible to cook vegetables in a way that actually ups their umami quotient. Umami-rich vegetarian cooking produces a satiety that leaves even the most hard-core carnivores full and happy. The vague hankering for something that’s “missing” just doesn’t arise, because we’re umami sated. There are many ways to add umami to vegetable dishes, but my favorites include ingredients with concentrated savory flavor—ingredients like miso, pulverized dried shiitake mushrooms, pulverized dried tomato, and dried kombu (kelp). These ingredients have become as basic to my cooking as salt and pepper, and give vegetable dishes more flavor and satisfaction.

A well-prepared and umami-packed Japanese eggplant, for example, cooked first in a hot cast-iron pan and then broiled, perfectly fulfills that place inside me that craves fish for dinner, without leaving me feeling like I’m “settling” for anything. Soft custard-style tofu, infused with batons of sauteed young ginger, is, to me, somewhat akin to a small plate of sashimi at the beginning of a meal, without aiming to replace it. They’re different, yet the satisfaction levels are similar. A green miso soup, with broth made not from dried bonito fish flakes but from dried tomatoes pureed with chard and white miso, is indescribably delicious; you couldn’t possibly miss the fish.

To Save or to Savor?

The bigger issue, of course, is not whether you can replace fish with something else, but how eating something just to fulfill a craving limits you as a human being. It’s hard to give up a taste you love, but there is a different sort of satisfaction and satiety in living the principles you believe in. The writer Elizabeth Kolbert captured this sentiment well in a piece she wrote for the New Yorker. “Vegetarianism,” she wrote, “requires the renunciation of real and irreplaceable pleasures.” And she’s right—the pleasures of eating fish are undeniable. But how far are we willing to go in pursuit of gustatory pleasure when it’s at the expense of our oceans? There is clearly some kind of moral imperative to not just wipe out all the fish in the oceans with our technological prowess and insatiable appetites. Isn’t there?

Get the Recipes!

    Miso-Glazed Eggplant

    Very Soft Tofu With Young Ginger and Sweet Peppers

    Green Miso Soup

    Eric Gower is the author of The Breakaway Cook: Recipes That Break Away from the Ordinary.