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A Crispy-Chewy, Salty-Sweet Vegan Party Snack That Resembles... Eel?

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You're not headed home tonight to grill up some eel as a "quick party app." (It's not such an easy fish to source in much of the U.S.—and, if you're planning to kill the thing yourself, let me remind you that an eel looks like a nightmarish combination of a slug, snake, leech, and sea cucumber and that many possess "large teeth used to tear flesh or grasp slippery prey items" ...Prey "items"?)

You're not headed home tonight to snack on soaked dried mushrooms, either. (Imagine that chewing experience.)

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Vegetarian Mock Eel
Vegetarian Mock Eel

So maybe it's an uphill battle to convince you to make "mock eel" out of little more than wrinkly shiitakes? Or maybe you're curious enough—what would mock eel even taste like?; what would deep-fried dried mushrooms be?—that you don't need much convincing at all? (Please?)

At King County Imperial in Brooklyn, Chef Josh Grinker deep-fries reconstituted, cornstarch-coated shiitake mushrooms before tossing them in a gingery sweetened soy sauce. (You'll find similar dishes at A Single Pebble in Burlington and BTU Brasserie in Portland, as well.)

The result is an addictively crispy-chewy, salty-sweet appetizer that would go well with a beer or two (while watching a football game, say?).

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Intriguing? Intriguing!
Intriguing? Intriguing! Photo by James Ransom

If you're an eel fan, you can marvel over the similarities: the chewy texture; the deep umami flavor; the somewhat puzzling but highly enjoyable appearance. ("The long strands and color of the mushrooms pretty closely resemble freshwater eels, which are a delicacy in certain regions of China," writes Grinker.)

But you don't even have to have tasted or enjoyed eel (of the global catch, 70% is consumed in Japan) to delight in the mock version—and you certainly don't have to have sourced or slaughtered one.

Forget the eel associations, if you want, and think of mock eel a vegan-friendly, better-than-onion-rings snack you can pull together from the dried mushrooms you never got around to using for soup, a knobby piece of ginger, and some sugar and soy sauce.

The whole eel thing can be our little secret.

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Vegetarian Mock Eel

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Serves 2 to 3 as a snack/appetizer
  • 3 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
  • 2 cups boiling water (or enough to cover)
  • Canola oil, for frying
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch plus 1/2 teaspoon, divided
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • One 1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled and mince
  • 3 tablespoons (scant) soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar