Maybe you’ve noticed shiitake bacon, tempeh bacon, rice-paper bacon or eggplant bacon on menus?
Or seen recipes online for coconut bacon, watermelon bacon, cauliflower bacon and carrot bacon? Or remember when the internet blew up with news about a seaweed that tasted like bacon – but was twice as healthy as kale?
Or you noticed when uni dropout Kjetil Hansen scored $300,000 of investment on Shark Tank for his vegie bacon seasoning, Deliciou? (One user review says: "There should be a Nobel Prize for your seasonings.")
Maybe the World Health Organisation’s breakfast-altering declaration about bacon causing cancer is one reason these alternatives are the rage. Or perhaps it’s the spike in vegan and vegetarian diets in Australia – and the fact half of us are eating less meat.
For Heidi Abraham and Zac Wolf, who run the Mister Toast stall at various Sydney markets, their inspiration for making vegan bacon was purely accidental.
"A customer came rushing back .... yelling ‘you’ve put meat in my toastie'."
“In the beginning, we applied for any market we could get into, one of them happened to be vegan,” says Abraham. They could take part as long as they had a vegan product.
So the pair took the blueprints for their triple-cheese toastie and gave it a meat-free remix. The home-made sauerkraut, Westmont pickles and Brickfields sourdough could stay, obviously, but the cheese was a goner – replaced by the pair’s own gooey ‘Cashiso’ cashew-based cheese. When it’s scorching, it’s as good as any burn-your-mouth-in-a-hurry-to-eat-it dairy version.
“However, the real challenge was how to make vegan bacon,” she says.
They nailed it with sliced shiitake mushrooms – marinated in a barbecue sauce that’s powered by salty, smoky and spicy flavours.
To create a leathery texture and bite, they left the mushrooms on low heat for hours in “mum’s oven”. But they’ve since allowed her to reclaim her kitchen and now use a commercial dehydrator instead.
“We had a most memorable moment when a customer came rushing back in quite the flurry, pointing to the missing bite of her toastie and yelling ‘you’ve put meat in my toastie’. We had to assure her that what she thought was meat was in fact our well-engineered shiitake bacon!”
Abraham knows that “people travel across town” to try this, and she has a theory for why vegan bacon has such a resonance. “We naturally crave rich salty and savoury foods – of which you don’t find a lot of in the vegetable world. Also, it has to do with nostalgia: a lot of our vegan customers often say that bacon was part of their childhood experience,” she says. “Bacon is synonymous with breakfast, by replicating bacon, you are in truth replicating a memory, an experience.”
James Danaskos runs Shift Eatery – Sydney’s first vegan deli – and he disputes the idea that vegan bacon is the holy grail for people who don’t eat meat.
He says interest in bacon alternatives has more to do with an overall conversion to plant-based diets.
“For me, I ate meat for 27 years, I ate eggs. So if you’re going to tell me to stop consuming animal products … I feel like it’s too much change. People need relatable, recognisable stuff to keep them going through the change. And I think that’s what people do a lot with bacon.”
Image from Paulpayasalad.
While Shift Eatery’s version is gluten-based and incorporates paprika, peppers and tamari for a salty, fiery effect, chef Lachlan Timms experimented with coconut, seitan and mushrooms before settling on a rice-paper bacon alternative for the current menu at Matcha Mylkbar in Melbourne.
“We realised that by hydrating the rice paper and gluing two or three pieces together, we can actually mimic bacon really well.” Getting it to convey the true flavour of bacon, though, “was the hardest to replicate”, he says. Timms is keen to keep details of his smoky, salty and semi-spicy seasoning classified, but he’s very open about why vegan bacon has wide appeal.
“I think bacon is one of those breakfast staples that everyone knows and loves – and there is no real alternative in the vegan world,” he says. Plus, it offers an alternative to people who shun the real thing for religious or cultural reasons.
“I, for one, believe deliciousness of bacon should be available for all!”