Ima, which means ‘now’ in Japanese, claims to be a “rebel” sushi company offering vegan alternatives with a strong focus on authenticity and sustainability.
The company wants to ‘redefine and reinvent’ sushi to reflect sustainability concerns and changing consumer preferences.
According to Mintel data, UK vegan sales were worth around £740 million in 2018. Sales of meat-free foods, including a growing range of vegan products, have shot up 22% between 2013-18, the research provider said.
Tesco, the country’s largest retailer, said its sales of chilled vegan products soared by 25% last year.
“Back when sushi was created, sustainability issues such as overfishing were not a topic of discussion. However, they are now, so we create sushi that is suitable for the present climate - the ‘now’ - for the conscious consumer in the modern world,” owner and founder Chan explained.
Consumers are increasingly waking up to concerns around overfishing and the health of marine environments – and this is a critical issue that Ima wants to help solve. “Our oceans and fish levels are depleting at such a rapid rate, it's just not sustainable for us to continue eating fish sushi. So we created this plant based alternative not just for vegans, but hopefully for non-vegans too. To make it easier for them to make food choices that will help fight against overfishing, without compromising on the taste or texture. They won't be able to tell the difference,” Chain claimed.
Ima also recognises the impact plastic pollution has on ocean life - and its sushi range is sold in 100% biodegradable trays.
'Vegan sushi isn't boring'
While Ima is reimagining sushi, tradition is still important to Chan, who has been rolling sushi since she was six years old. Every piece of Ima sushi is hand-rolled using a traditional bamboo mat and sliced in “the little Ima kitchen”.
Indeed, Ima’s ethos very much reflects Chan’s own personal journey. She founded Ima in December 2017 after deciding to go vegan – but finding a lack of fish-free sushi options was “making it difficult”.
“It was my favourite food yet the only options available on the market at the time were cucumber rolls. It felt like I had to make a choice between being vegan or never eating sushi again.
“I was determined to change people’s view that vegan sushi is boring and instead, reinvent it by creating innovative sushi flavours never seen before in sushi, which even non-vegans would love.”
Last week, the company expanded its offering with the addition of plant-based ‘salmon’ sushi sets, which were introduced to Planet Organic stores across London.
“We're so excited about launching this never seen before product - it will be the first vegan salmon sushi set in retailers,” Chan enthused. “We believe this will be a game-changer for the sushi industry.”
‘It melts in your mouth like salmon sashimi’
According to Chan, the new SKU “looks and has the texture exactly like salmon sashimi”.
Konjac is a common name of the Asian plant Amorphophallus konjac, which has an edible corm. It is a rich source of dietary fibre and is often used as a gelatin substitute to thicken or add texture to foods.
The recipe for the salmon substitute was developed in-house by Ima’s development chef, who created it from scratch. It uses Konjac, an Asian root vegetable, as its base.
“In December we visited Hong Kong and discovered the ingredient konjac. Konjac itself is colourless, tasteless and has a jelly-like texture - completely different to salmon so it was a challenge initially.”
The recipe development process was one of trial and error, Chan continued. “We tested adding multiple different ingredients with varying ratios and now we have got the texture just right, where it melts in your mouth exactly like salmon sashimi.
“We wanted to keep the taste simple keeping in mind that real salmon sashimi is supposed to be dipped in soy sauce to bring out the savoury taste.”
The new product joins Ima’s roster of 12 SKUs, including vegan sushi burritos, vegan ‘tuna’ and sweetcorn sushi burrito, katsu tempeh sushi burrito and a vegan hoisin ‘duck’ sushi set. Ima is also preparing to launch a black rise vegan ‘crab’ roll later this month.
From niche to mainstream
Since the company’s launch, Ima was able to secure listings “surprisingly” quickly, Chan reflected.
Planet Organic, the London-based speciality retailer, gave Ima its first big break after just one month of trading.
“I’m very grateful Planet Organic saw the potential and they were very invested in the idea from the beginning,” Chan said. “The buyer has been very active in developing the product range in terms of coming up with ideas for flavours drawing on inspiration from the plant-based market in the US.”
Planet Organic is the UK’s largest organic supermarket, operating seven stores across London. Ima is now also stocked in Sourced Market in St. Pancras, Victoria and Marylebone train stations.
Chan said Ima wants to build on this in order to reach as many consumers as possible with its ocean-friendly sushi.
“We would like to be accessible to as many people as possible so we’re hoping to supply to Wholefoods and eventually mainstream retailers like Waitrose, WHSmith and Boots in the future.
“If we do break into these stores, this would certainly be a big break in our expansion.”