Vegetables Get the Tinned Fish Treatment

In the age of TikTok marketing most everything is undergoing a rebrand, in both the food world and things adjacent to it. Agua fresca makes the rounds as “spa water.” Baby blue nail polish is a “blueberry milk” manicure; warm brown tones on the eyes and cheeks are “latte makeup.” An affection for Mediterranean imagery and the color red is now the “tomato girl aesthetic,” while a preference for neutrals denotes a “vanilla girl.” And so on.

It’s within this ecosystem that canned fish has continued its evolution into the trendy “tinned fish,” a stroke of marketing genius that put all types of hermetically sealed seafood on the menus of high-end restaurants and markets around the country. Now, vegetables are getting the same treatment: The “plant-based seafood company” Seed to Surf offers “mushroom snow crab” and “celery root whitefish” in cutely packaged cans — er, tins — ready to be cracked open for a snack board spread. Unlike the tuna alternatives increasingly stocked at grocery stores, Seed to Surf’s product is made of whole plants, not plant-based proteins.

A fan of both vegetables and tinned fish, naturally, I was curious: Can mushrooms adequately satisfy a craving for crustaceans?

Seed to Surf’s “snow crab” is made out of enoki mushrooms.

First, I tried the mushroom snow crab, a can of enoki mushrooms packed in oil with “natural flavors.” I served it the way I would a tin of sardines: with sliced radishes, saltines, and a pat of nice butter sprinkled with flaky salt. In a nod to my favorite conservas bar, which serves mayo with its tins, I also got out the bottle of kewpie.

On a cracker, I stacked butter, radish, and “snow crab.” It tasted good — not briny but slightly sweet in the same way I’d expect from real crab. It smelled vaguely oceanic, likely helped by the square of kelp at the bottom of the can. There was no mistaking the texture as mushrooms though: Crab meat clusters into dense lumps, but enokis fan out into chewy, hollow stems, the distinctness of each string emphasized by the slick of oil. I liked the product, if more as mushroom than as “crab,” though its subtle flavor did better with just butter than with mayo.

an open can of “celery root whitefish” showing seven chunks of celery root packed in oil

The “whitefish” is made out of celery root.

Next, I tried the celery root whitefish. The contents looked convincing: meaty hunks not dissimilar in appearance to Fishwife’s smoked salmon. The celery root smelled less oceanic than the mushrooms but, like real whitefish, was smoky in a way that suggested a deep savoriness. I decided to lean on that quality as well as the company’s recommendation to use the celery root in salads and sandwiches and made a smoked “whitefish” salad.

Although Seed to Surf describes the product as “flaky,” I found a solidness to the celery root that doesn’t exist in real fish or the common pulled-meat analog of jackfruit. Like fish, jackfruit flakes apart with a fork as long as you cut off its solid core. But the celery root felt more like the jackfruit core, resisting my attempts to flake it and instead breaking off into ragged chunks. Mixed with mayo, sour cream, and herbs, it looked passably like a fish salad, but the celery root’s texture and slight tartness made it clear that it wasn’t.

This type of comparison isn’t generally how I like to approach cooking or eating vegetables. While I might draw inspiration from meat dishes while cooking plants, I’m rarely looking to imitate them so much as trying to take their good parts — flavor profiles, combinations of textures — and draw out the similar goodness in vegetables. I’d rather judge a mushroom on its own merits than ask myself how much it approximates crab.

a cracker topped with “celery root whitefish” salad made by mixing the smoky celery root with mayo, sour cream, and herbs

A cracker topped with “celery root whitefish” salad.

Seed to Surf, however, seems to welcome comparisons to the animal kingdom. “We use whole vegetables to recreate the seafood experience,” reads its website. According to another page: “By preserving and preparing them just right, we’ve discovered that whole vegetables can offer intriguing new takes on the premium tinned seafood you’d find at top restaurants and high-end grocers.” There’s a crab on the box of enokis, a fish on the box of celery root, and “snow crab” and “whitefish” are right there in the product names.

To be clear: I like these products. But I also wonder about the disservice we do to vegetables — and our capacity to enjoy them — when we frame them through the lens of animal protein. Does celery root have to be a “take” on whitefish? Or, smoked and oil-packed, can it just be an interesting way to spotlight celery root, a vegetable that’s often undersung?

It comes down to a question of language, but language is no minor thing. Seed to Surf’s language, in particular, acknowledges the potential in plants, still that potential is limited by a plants’ ability to serve as a simulacrum. As plant-based eating evolves in the United States, I’ve come to see these comparisons to animal protein as pushing a boulder up a hill: With animal protein in the US associated with idealized notions of tradition, nostalgia, and success, meat will always win out in the imaginations of many eaters. Vegetables, meanwhile, have so much room to grow.

There is also the question of branding. Comparison to animal protein capitalizes on consumers’ love of meat and seafood, but it establishes a relationship to plants that is rooted in a sense of losing something held dear. “Recreating the seafood experience with vegetables” is, ultimately, replacement. But might more shoppers be open to a vegetable product like this if it emphasized the sense of addition — that perhaps you don’t know a lot of ways to use celery root, but here’s a convenient new one?

My hesitation to the concept of these canned vegetables as being “new takes” on tinned seafood is also no doubt informed by the current cultural standing of canned vegetables. They are frugal and functional, but they are still decidedly uncool, in the same way American society at large previously perceived tinned fish. To me, the most exciting potential of a product like this is in highlighting vegetables as they are, and showing consumers that a quality canned vegetable is just as worthy of the snack spread as a tin of sardines.

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