Culinology® Magazine: Insights From the Company Behind Tomato-Based Tuna

The company that transformed tomato into sushi-grade tuna plans to introduce an eggplant-based eel alternative and a carrot-based salmon substitute soon. David Benzaquen, chief executive of­ficer of Ocean Hugger Foods, Inc., revealed his company’s latest innovations at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 30-July 2 in New York.

Ahimi, the tomato-based tuna lookalike that debuted last year, may now be found in the sushi case at dozens of Whole Foods Market locations, on college campuses and in corporate cafeterias. Developed by certi­fied master chef James Corwell, Ahimi contains ­five ingredients: tomatoes, fi­ltered water, soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar.

“Why tomatoes?” said Mr. Benzaquen during a presentation at the Summer Fancy Food Show. “The reality is tomatoes are rich in umami ... and umami is the same taste that is in tuna and rice and seaweed, all the things you fi­nd in sushi.”

Tomatoes are packed with glutamic acid, the source of umami ‑flavor, and the ruby flesh matches that of raw tuna in such dishes as sashimi, nigiri, poke, tartare and ceviche.

“Over fi­ve years, he ­figured out how to get rid of all of that acidity and juiciness and create a ­firm texture and delicious tuna ‑flavor,” Mr. Benzaquen said of Mr. Corwell, an Atlanta native who created the concept out of concern for endangered ­fish species after attending a tuna auction in Tokyo. That is where the idea for Ocean Hugger Foods ­first started to take shape, with the goal of creating more sustainable and safe seafoodstyle options.

Ahimi is vegan and kosher, but it is not gluten-free because soy sauce contains wheat. Ocean Hugger Foods sells the product at about a third of the price of sushi-grade tuna, and some chefs pair it with ­fish in sushi rolls or poke bowls to reduce costs, Mr. Benzaquen said.

The company’s mission is to create delicious, sustainable plant-based alternatives to popular seafood proteins that delight even the most discerning of palates.

“We are a company that is using innovation to drive this sustainable goal, but we’re also recognizing that consumers want clean ingredients, they want affordable foods,” he said. “And using tomatoes and selling them as raw tuna is both. Our ingredients are super simple, and people are moving toward more vegetables on the plate.”

The company faced signifi­cant hurdles early on, but after a recent streak of success, Ocean Hugger Foods is preparing to expand globally. The company plans to launch Ahimi in Asian and European markets next year, Mr. Benzaquen said.

“You don’t need to do years and years of consumer validation like big companies do, but you do need to listen and be ready to pivot,” he said.

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