Air fryers have got to be one the best recent kitchen innovations. Certainly one of the most popular. We humans love crispy textures which up until a few year ago could only really be produced by deep frying in oil. But we know that is not good for health. Plus it uses – and wastes – a lot of oil. And in the current unsettled time of conflicts, the price of cooking oil has shot up almost as much as the type which powers our cars and heats homes.
The first gadget branded an ‘air fryer’ was only released to market in 2010 by Phillips but it still took until 2018 before sales really took off. My research tells me the prototype was created by a chap from the Netherlands called Fred van de Weij in 2007; he sold his technology to Phillips.
I first heard about them from people within my Overcoming MS circle. There was chat about how we could make crispy chips without deep frying. A wonderful thing in my mind! Up to this point I had been baking potato wedges in the oven. And whilst they were tasty, it still didn’t give my that same crunchy chip satisfaction.
If you have an air fryer, have you ever wondered how it works? The technology is based on electric convection ovens creating a high heat. This hot air is then circulated at high speed by integrated fans. The heat and air circulating forms the chemical reaction that creates a crispy texture – the Maillard reaction**. Clever stuff.
There are lots of different makes of air fryers now that come in all shapes and sizes. Some gadgets do just one job – air fry. Others have a combination of functions that include saute, baking, slow and pressure cooking. I have one of those – this ninja beast, a present from my lovely hubby. It would probably do a little dance as well if I asked it 🙂
During the cost of living crisis, many people have practically stopped using their main ovens due the cost of electricity and used their air fryers instead. And as many recipes just need a little tweaking it means people can still cook from scratch without too much difficulty.
I have to confess I still like to bake in the oven so don’t use my air fryer that often, particularly since moving into our new house which has an Aga. However, there are some things that can only be done in the air fryer in my mind. This vegan version of fish and chips being one of them.
Since changing to a whole-food plant-based diet, there are certain meals I’ve missed. Fish and chips is definitely one of them. Crunchy batter, white flaky fish and perfectly crisp chips with lashing of tomato ketchup bring back many fond childhood memories. But now using food as medicine, following a programme that minimises refined oils and understanding more about the fishing industry and how the seas have been ravished by greed, it’s a dish that’s definitely off the menu for me.
The version I’m sharing with you here is very different to one you’ll find in a fish and chip shop.
- it’s breaded not battered
- it uses tofu instead of fish
- there’s minimal oil used
Does it taste like fish and chips? Not really. However, if you think about it, the main flavour comes from the oil in the batter cooked at high heat. If it tastes fishy then the fish isn’t fresh and you shouldn’t really be eating it!
Many fish and chip shops now offer a vegan option using banana blossom. I’ve tried that and it does work well. However, there’s not much nutrition there, especially protein. So I prefer to use tofu as it provides a good amount of plant protein as well as helpful phytoestrogens and other other nutrients.
You need to use extra firm tofu for this dish. If you can’t find any in the shops, take time to press firm tofu to remove as much water as you can. I talk about how in this post. Soft tofu is too flexible and will collapse before you can get it properly covered and into the air fryer. I find Tofoo the best to use. Their smoked tofu is particularly good as it gives another flavour profile.
To give a little bit of a fishy edge, nori is laid on one side of the tofu before it’s covered in breadcrumbs. Nori is a dried edible seaweed that comes in large squares and used frequently in Japanese dishes. Not only does it provide flavour but is a useful source of iodine, something that can be hard to find in a plant-based diet. It also contains a bit of B12 as well as small amounts of iron, magnesium and potassium. Not a massive amount but still contributing to the days intake.
Rather than batter, I coat my ‘fish’ in panko breadcrumbs as they are lovely and crispy when cooked and don’t contain yeast, something I need to avoid. If you are gluten free, there are some great gluten free breadcrumbs available in the free-from section of supermarkets.
To get the nori and breadcrumbs to stick to the tofu, I use a chickpea mix instead of egg. Just a teaspoon of chickpea/gram flour mixed with water to make a loose batter. The nori is then dunked in the mix, pressed to the side of the tofu chunk. This is then dunked and coated before the breadcrumbs are sprinkled all over. It works just as good as an egg. If you have any aquafaba (chickpea brine) hanging around in the fridge, you could use this. But I prefer the flour mix personally.
For making crispy chips in the air fryer, it’s preferable to peel and slice the potatoes into equal sizes (as much as you can) and then soak them in water for at least 30 minutes. This encourages some of the starches out and helps the potato to crisp up better. Drain and dry well before putting them in the air fryer.
Most recipes for cooking chips in an air fryer say to use oil. You can however get crispy fries without oil. But they won’t be quite as crispy. To use oil or not to use oil then – that is the question 😉
Although the heat inside the air fryer gets really high, the oil and the surface of the heat never connect (as long as it’s in a basket or separate container). So a little oil shouldn’t be an issue, especially if you just add a few squirts using a spray. However, if you are religiously following a no-cooking oil diet, then just leave off the oil. They won’t be quite as crispy but still good.
Finally, if you don’t have an air fryer, don’t despair! You can still make this recipe by baking in the oven. Just make sure you have a good non-stick baking tray don’t forget to turn the ‘fish’ and chips a few times so they bake evenly.
I really love eating this plant-based version of fish and chips; the crunch, the flavour and the satisfaction of knowing it’s good for me and the world around me too. If you give it a go, do let me know how you get on.
** The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction during cooking between amino acids and reducing sugars that creates melanoidins, the compounds which give browned food its distinctive flavor
Air fryer plant-based 'fish' and chips
- 200 grams extra firm plain or smoked tofu
- ½ medium sheet of nori
- 1 heaped teaspoon gram/chickpea flour
- salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp water
- 2 large potatoes
- peas or mushy peas
- lemon wedges
- Peel the potatoes (if skins thick or blemished, otherwise just scrub clean). Cut into roughly equal slices approx. 2½ cm thick. Place in a large bowl of water and leave to soak for at least 30 minutes
- Slice the tofu into 4 equal slices. Cut the nori into squares the same size as the tofu slices.
- Place the chickpea/gram flour in a bowl. Add the water and whisk well to combine to make a thin batter. Add a little more water if it's too thick but not too much. Season with salt and pepper.
- Sprinkle the panko or gluten free breadcrumbs onto a small plate.
- Dip one piece of nori into the chickpea flour mix and place on the side of a slice of tofu. Carefully dip the tofu into the flour mix so it's coated then place on the plate of crumbs. Using your fingers, cover the slice with crumbs until well coated.
- Carefully move the coated tofu to a clean plate. Repeat the process until all four slices are matched with nori and coated.
- If you have a double drawer air fryer, you can cook the tofu and chips at the same time. If you only have one drawer you need to cook them separately. These instructions are written for cooking separately.
- Pre-heat your air fryer if instructed to do so. Place the tofu 'fish' into the air fryer basket and cook on 200C set for 5 minutes. Once the time is up, carefully turn the slices and cook again for another 5 minutes or until brown and crispy.
- Whilst the tofu 'fish' is frying, drain the potatoes and rinse under a running tap. Tip into a tea towel and dry well.
- Once the tofu 'fish' is ready, remove from the air fryer and place in a warmed oven or on a warming plate whilst the chips cook.
- Tip the potato slices into the air fryer basket. If you are adding oil, spray a few squirts onto the potato and run in with your hands to distribute (don't burn yourself on the hot sides). Set the air fryer to 200C and cook for 10 minutes. Once the alarm bleeps, shake the basket and cook for another 5-10 minutes depending on how crispy your chips are at the 10 minute point.
- Whilst the chips are frying, cook the peas if using and slice the lemon into wedges.
- Once the chips are cooked, serve immediately.