Many living in the Midwest have fond memories of church fish fries during Lent, and even though Chicago has fewer options due to pandemic safety concerns, the tradition perseveres. While fried whitefish conjures up nostalgia for Catholics, Chicagoans who don’t eat red meat — regardless of faith — enjoy the season for the increase in options at restaurants. Still, vegetarians and vegans who crave the crunch of a battered piece of fish seem to be out of luck. That is, until now: Upton’s Breakroom, the vegan restaurant in West Town, is using banana blossoms to mimic the texture of fried whitefish.
“It’s just a fun way to try unsual, new ingredients,” says Natalie Slater, marketing director for the restaurant’s parent company, Upton’s Naturals.
Upton’s Naturals is a vegan company that makes and distributes meat substitutes sold at stores across the country. It debuted banana blossoms back in October and included a recipe (created by Slater) for fried fish printed on the packaging. For Lent, Upton’s decided to show customers how to properly prepare the dish and are selling fish fries for pickup via Tock.
The blossom’s petals are tightly packed and resemble a filet, Slater says. The petals are marinated with lemon juice, dill, and kelp powder. That gets battered with with celery salt, paprika, garlic, and pepper. The blossom then goes swimming in canola oil before it emerges golden brown.
For Upton’s, this is another example of introducing an ingredient enjoyed by vegans outside the U.S. to Americans. Jackfruit, an item consumed widely in places like India, has become a best-seller for the company. Banana blossoms aren’t new worldwide, but “for the more mainstream consumers, the new vegans and vegetarians, it’s a really wild concept,” Slater says. The flower is widely enjoyed in Asian countries like Indonesia and India.
For now, the plan is to offer a church-style fish fry through the end of March. Meals come with a baked potato (with a pat of margarine, not butter), dinner roll, and a vinegar-based coleslaw. If the blossoms are a hit, Slater says they may try different styles of fried fish including Sri Lankan, Thai, or English fish and chips. The next day for pickup is Friday, March 5.