Caviar is synonymous with luxury. More so than steak, or truffles, or even saffron, caviar is what you speak of when you want to evoke black-tie galas, crystal stemware, the world of the 1 percent. The fussiness of its service — don’t you dare let anything but a spoon made from mother of pearl touch it — descends from that of its origins. Retrieving the intact eggs by basically performing a C-section on very specific sturgeon is a hell of a way to get an appetizer.
Caviar is also, obviously, an animal product, and while there are debates as to whether vegan cuisine should or shouldn’t attempt to mimic meat, a caviar service of blini and creme fraiche and herbs and chopped eggs is one of many things vegetarians and vegans (as well as anyone who can’t afford it) have done without. Products that could be considered “vegan caviar” have long existed, but the fanfare of the caviar service has remained for meat eaters. However, the past few years have seen an increased interest in plant-based eating, and the rise of not just vegan restaurants, but vegan fine dining. Vegan caviar is the new luxury.
The newly vegan (except for the secret meat room) Eleven Madison Park added a vegan caviar service to its $335 tasting menu, serving tonburi seeds in a packed cylinder, with lettuce wraps in place of toast points, and vegan creme fraiche. Tonburi, also known as land or mountain caviar, has been used in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years as a caviar-like garnish — Daniel Humm specifically highlighted the ingredient on his Instagram, saying it was an “essential ingredient of the Akita Buddhist Shojin-Ryori cuisine.” It consists of the seeds of the summer cypress tree, boiled and hulled, to reveal a sphere with a vegetal flavor and that classic caviar pop.
EMP is far from an innovator here, even if it brings the biggest spotlight to date. In 2017, PYT in LA served a tonburi caviar service, with accoutrements like corn, cashew cream, and capers. “I was first introduced to tonburi in 2002 by one of my Japanese purveyors, while at the Michelin three-star New American tasting menu restaurant Manresa,” chef Josef Centeno told Eater. PYT was a vegetable-focused restaurant, and Centeno said “it seemed appropriate to do a vegan take on caviar service,” though he also wanted diners to understand tonburi and caviar are not the same. For service, he mixed tonburi with “fermented and lacto-fermented grains and seeds to add depth to the experience.”
Other restaurants have mixed other ingredients into tonburi, or used different ingredients altogether, to evoke caviar. Ian Jones, the head chef at Elizabeth in Chicago, said they’ve had more guests requesting its vegan menu. “With us being a fine dining restaurant I feel like we need to offer some luxury ingredients throughout the dinner,” Jones said, “so tonburi came to mind to replace our caviar course.” However, Jones has had a difficult time sourcing tonburi from Japan for the restaurant’s “‘caviar’ + fresh tofu” dish, so in the interim, he developed another kind of vegan caviar. “[Tonburi] has a broccoli flavor profile ... so now the caviar is made from fermented broccoli seeds,” he said, which he added to a brine colored with charcoal powder and mixed with shio koji and xanthan gum for salinity and texture. “And then to add a little more oceanic flavor to it all we are also mixing in sea grapes,” he said. “I think altogether it’s pretty close to a real caviar.”
Chef Amanda Cohen has found many vegan caviars disappointing facsimiles of the real stuff. At her vegetarian fine dining vanguard Dirt Candy, she has experimented with vegan caviar for years, but for this year’s New Year’s party menu, decided to serve it as a standalone caviar service. She’s come to rely on a seaweed caviar sourced from a company based in Denmark. She’s served it as part of larger dishes, accompanied by other vegetables, but for the New Year’s party, she knew people would be looking for dishes both traditional and luxurious, like a caviar service. For Cohen, it also allows her to remind vegetarian diners they don’t have to be an afterthought. “[My customers] feel like, ‘Oh, look, I’m just like a normal diner ... These are the things that traditionally pair well with caviar and I get to experience them too.’”
While tonburi and seaweed have been known as vegan caviars for a long time, they are decisively not caviar. So what happens when, instead of being presented on the menu as a seed or an innovation in molecular gastronomy, these ingredients are given nicknames that associate them with a meat dish? At its worst, it sets expectations tonburi and other vegan caviars can’t and in some ways should never have had to meet. According to Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton, tonburi on its own at EMP wasn’t enough to evoke traditional caviar. “The seeds lack the MSG-type roundness, salts, or oils of good caviar. The tonburi represent an absence of flavor, or quite frankly thought behind this dish,” he wrote in September. “They do, admittedly, function well as part of a nice, snacky lettuce wrap with a good crunch, but the evocation of caviar in a place that used to serve lots of that luxury item conjures up a very specific sensation: disappointment.”
Jones admits there are pros and cons to calling an ingredient like tonburi “caviar.” On one hand, it sets expectations for people who have never had it before, conjuring something familiar. However, “I don’t want people to hear ‘caviar’ and expect something luxurious, creamy and briny,” said Jones. And while it may be a gateway for non-vegans to experiment with vegan cuisine, “I fear that some of our guests will not have that same unctuous feeling you get from real caviar and may be a little put off.” Chefs working with these ingredients must also be careful not to confirm non-vegan’s biases against vegan cuisine by inadvertently making the vegan option subpar in comparison to traditional caviar.
Calling something like tonburi “caviar” also risks separating the ingredient from its Japanese origins, making it seem like a fun, new thing Western chefs have discovered rather than a staple of some Japanese cuisines. Some chefs, like Centeno, are making a concerted effort to contextualize vegan caviar ingredients, by serving it with other vegan ingredients, or explaining how a vegan caviar is made. “I think if you just put tonburi in a dish and just serve it with traditional caviar accoutrements, that might be bordering on false advertisement and boring,” said Centeno. But that doesn’t mean vegan caviar is inherently disappointing, or that experimenting with tonburi and presenting it in a more traditional caviar service is an insult to its origins.
There is a long history of vegetarian and vegan food that makes a conscious effort to recreate the flavor and texture of meat — mock duck, seitan, jackfruit, things often eaten because they are not meat but seem like meat. These restaurants have made no secret of the provenance of their vegan caviars, and according to Cohen, serving it in a way that evokes meat isn’t saying meat is superior. Serving vegan caviar as a traditional caviar service also recognizes that, no matter the origins of a dish, it’s always new for someone. Perhaps tonburi shouldn’t have to be framed as caviar in order to pique some diners’ interests, but everyone needs a first step toward curiosity. If for the first time you discover caviar can taste good and be vegan, what else is possible?
“There’s only so many tastes and flavors in the world, no matter how creative they are, and a lot of them work together for really good reasons,” Cohen said. “Being able to serve the caviar in this way is a way of reminding people that vegetables and seaweeds and plant-based food is just as delicious, if not more so, than non-vegan food.”
Garrett Sweet is a Chicago-based photographer.