• Sadhana's vegan eggs made from sweet potato and coconut. (Sadhana)
From lab experiments to vegan deli foods, chefs and restaurateurs are pushing the possibilities of vegetarian food far beyond tossed leaves and lentil salad.
By
Lee Tran Lam

18 Sep 2017 - 2:43 PM  UPDATED 19 Sep 2017 - 11:10 AM

Maz Valcorza grew up eating double cheeseburgers and Spam from a can, so she’s not an obvious ambassador for vegan food. In her current role running Sydney’s Sadhana Kitchen, though, she’s subverting people’s expectations of what a menu without animal products looks like.

“Our eggs [pictured above] are made from sweet potato and coconut and we make ‘cheese’ just like traditional methods, often ageing the ‘cheese’. Rather than dairy, we use other creamy ingredients like nuts, seeds and coconut. It's actually not as difficult as people think!” she says.

“It's just about education, planning and knowing simple substitutions.”

Nowadays, producing meat-free dishes goes far beyond thumbing through old vegetarian cookbooks, as Valcorza and others within the hospitality industry are proving.

Her creative approaches range from from finding inspiration on Instagram (where there’s a good support base for people experimenting with vegan food) to inventing vegan remixes of dishes from her Filipino background – which requires some inspired thinking, given it’s a meat-heavy cuisine where even vegetable dishes feature pork as a flavour enhancer. So, for instance, she substitutes the protein in adobo with oyster mushrooms (“which have a strange fatty pork-like texture once cooked”) and uses tamari and maple syrup to give it the very 2017 verification of being gluten-free and sugarless.

Creating meat substitutes

It's a preoccupation for Shannon Martinez, who is head chef at Melbourne vegan eateries, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli. “All the ‘meats’ that we use in our sandwiches are made in the deli kitchen. Turkey, ham, salami and pastrami, all made by us,” she says. It’s been a labour-intensive process: years of recipe-testing (“with plenty of disasters”) have led to these versions that buck the expectation that mock meat tastes fake and inedible. “I got them as close to the real deal as possible,” she says. But it’s still an ordeal to replicate in the kitchen: “Each type of meat takes two days to make from start to finish.”

 

She uses a base of vital wheat gluten, then she tweaks it according to the meat type. “Some have blended tofu, some have blended cooked beans, some have chickpea flour. For the pastrami, we pickle it after slicing to give it that colour and taste.”

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Martinez also makes two types of mozzarella (including one that she sets and brines “just like a traditional buffalo mozzarella”), but “cheese has always been the one I will never be happy enough with. It's that one non vegan product that people really have a hard time letting go of.”

She also admires the use of chickpea brine (from tinned chickpeas): “This stuff can replicate egg whites so well, it could fool almost anyone.”

Fine-dining chefs are using ancient and modern techniques

Phil Wood is currently the culinary director at Pt. Leo Estate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, but during his time as Rockpool’s head chef in Sydney, he managed to create a seafood substitute in a totally unusual way. He found a Chinese recipe in a cookbook from Hong Kong and was able to (mostly) follow the step-by-step pictures; a Chinese-fluent colleague in the kitchen proved helpful. The dish involved soaking dried shiitakes overnight, then using scissors to cut the mushrooms into long, spiralling ribbons. “This was then dredged in cornflour and deep-fried until crisp,” he says. “After that, it was braised in a miso caramel with a little bit of chilli and black vinegar.” He was amazed that the recipe worked – and it also tasted like squid.

He’s not the only one flexing his fine-dining skills in an innovative way: Brent Savage has also set a high benchmark for inventive meat-free dishes at his Sydney venues, Bentley Restaurant + Bar and Yellow. (In fact, the diner response to a special vegan dinner at Bentley inspired him to turn Yellow into an all-vegetarian restaurant.)

“We use a combination of traditional (pickling, fermenting) and modern methods (dehydrating) to enhance the flavours of seasonal produce,” he says.

Koji – a process of inoculating rice that’s often used in making sake or miso – has been employed to give a salty, complex flavour to these creamed corn and eggs on Yellow's weekend brunch menu.

 

It’s not the only instance Savage and his chefs have reworked a classic method in a new way. “For instance, we create sauce bases for savoury dishes by using kombucha scoby to do a secondary ferment on high-sugar-content fruit. We have found this creates a natural umami, which adds extra layers and flavour dimensions to vegetarian dishes.”

 

There's always been the plant patty but now there are lab-grown patties

Amit Tewari, who runs the Soul Burger venues in Sydney, says his background as a doctor played a part in his decision to boycott animal products. The basis of his meat-free menu - like his signature beef patty - comes from pea and soy proteins.

 

But Tewari’s also impressed by the work of Impossible Foods – the Californian start-up behind the lab-tested vegan burger that replicates the “bleeding” rawness of meat: “What Impossible Foods did by using soy to pump out heme and create blood flavours in plant-based food is pretty inspiring. And of course what Memphis Meats is currently leading in clean meats (using cell culturing techniques to engineer meat outside of animals) is ridiculously exciting.”

Valcorza is also fascinated by this technological process, but she wonders if we’re overlooking mother nature’s potential. “The flavour explosion that something like a simple organic heirloom tomato can provide is unparalleled.”

 

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