When chef Dan Hong co-hosted The Chef’s Line this year, he was blown away by contestant Anjali Nambissan’s take on butter chicken. What’s more incredible is that her version featured neither chicken nor butter – it was entirely vegan.
When the home cook shared her recipe, she revealed that she liked to use a brand of soy nuggets that’s typically found in Indian shops and health food outlets.
So often mock meats get a squirmy reaction in the mainstream, so I’m fascinated by the triumphant response she got from a legit chef after cooking with the polarising ingredient.
It's always a meat-eater who is strangely outraged that people might want to eat soy chicken.
As a vegetarian of 20 years, this has been the most debate-flaring topic I’ve encountered – most people can easily digest why you’d give up eating animal protein (because it’s often for animal welfare, ethical, religious, health or environmental reasons – or all of the above), but almost any time the topic of mock meats come up, there’ll be someone gunning to have a fight about it. And it’s always a meat-eater who is strangely outraged that people might want to eat soy chicken, a meat-free burger or vego snag. Any vegetarian who turns up to a barbecue, meanwhile, is often grateful that there’s some alternative they can throw on the grill and use as tomato-sauce target practice.
Over the years, I’ve heard some remix of the following line, “ew, why would vegetarians want to eat something that looks like meat?” But, as the reasons rolled out above demonstrate, not every vegetarian gives up animal protein because they object to its physical appearance or flavour. Some miss the taste of meat or will concede it is very delicious and goes very well with a hot dog bun or eggs on toast. But the overriding ethical, religious, health or environmental concerns can’t be shaken off so easily and ultimately take priority over the momentary thrill of smashing a steak or fried chicken.
Every time a meat eater is keen to point to me how “gross” mock meats are, I wonder if they’re thinking of the tinned sausages in the supermarket (which are, frankly, pretty weird and only something I’d consume in an apocalyptic situation), or the rich tradition of Buddhist temple cuisine?
The history of mock meats is centuries old and Buddhist monks were pretty much the OG innovators in creating vegetarian alternatives. Faux meats were made as an act of hospitality – an inclusive food that vego monks could cook for their carnivore visitors, without either group feeling like they were missing out. This was happening as early as the 10th century, during the Song Dynasty in China, and pre-dates the first instance of a vegetarian sausage in Western dining by more than 600 years. (That moment is labelled as “an important invention” by an American newspaper, but side note: the Chinese were cranking out vego-friendly sausages way back in 1301.)
Faux meats were made as an act of hospitality ... without either group feeling like they were missing out.
Perhaps if people were aware of the heritage of mock meats (and how some Buddhist monks can truly bust some impressive culinary moves), they’d see the tradition as much more expansive than supermarket products with punchline-triggering names (such as Not Dog and Facon).
And that’s why I was struck by Dan Hong’s endorsement of Anjali Nambissan’s vegan butter chicken on The Chef’s Line – it was refreshing to hear someone (especially a chef!) not convey mock meats as some gross, lesser or taboo ingredient. If anything, the executive chef of Sydney’s Mr Wong was impressed by its transformation.
“All the flavours of butter chicken were in there. The way that it was seasoned, and the spices that were used – it was actually more delicious than other contestants that actually used chicken,” he tells me.
“There is quite a technique that goes into making mock meats and mock seafood,” he adds. Particularly “in the most hectic, fanciest vegan restaurants in Asia … It’s almost like royal cuisine”.
“I still remember a meal I had in Vietnam with my mum over 10 years ago, where we went to this vegetarian restaurant and everything we ate was like mock squid and mock prawn and mock chicken. And it was so good.”
His kitchen at Mr Wong has had interesting show-and-tell demos of mock meats, too. “I had a vegetarian kitchen hand and he would bring in all this different vegetarian stuff for us to cook, like vegan chicken nuggets and stuff like that .... We’d try them and were like, man, these are good.”
“As a chef and as a person who does eat meat, yes, I am impressed,” he says.
While Hong is a fan, mock meats are often disparaged and misunderstood – and the bad PR is probably worsened by the fact they’re made of gluten (an ingredient so often maligned, it’s like it lost some well-targeted scare campaign).
“Yeah, of course. Because these days, when people are vegan and all that, they also turn gluten-free as well,” he says. And also, the stigma is in the name. “It’s called gluten. It’s not even a soy-bean product … It’s actually a noun, gluten. That’s what they call it.”
Even at vegetarian venues, mock meats aren’t as prominent as they used to be – and they've often gone through a contemporary makeover. That’s the case at Veg Bar, a new vegan café in Hobart. Co-owner Jazmin Ditommaso says, “We have quite a few novelty items, made in a variety of different ways, in an attempt to imitate meat and dairy foods.” The interpretations are fun rather than literal and unearthed from the landscape, rather than crafted from gluten or soy.
As for mock meats, “there is definitely a move away from soy and gluten products, and I’d say the industrialisation of food generally”.
“For example, our current version of bacon is dehydrated brown rice infused with a combination of different spices to echo that barbecue flavour associated with bacon. Another favourite, buffalo wings, is made from cauliflower florets, coated in a thick crunchy batter and served with our delicious buffalo and Caesar sauces,” she says.
As for mock meats, “there is definitely a move away from soy and gluten products, and I’d say the industrialisation of food generally”, she adds. While mock meats can “have a positive place in the homes of people who are trying to cut down their meat intake”, she believes the trend is towards wholefoods and back-to-basics cooking.
“Many new forms of mock meats are starting to use alternatives to soy and gluten, such as rice proteins, so I don’t necessarily feel that the shift towards more plant-based foods excludes mock meats in this day and age,” she adds.
For Ditommaso – whose menu ranges from pulled jackfruit loaded fries to a tempura tofu brekkie bowl – Veg Bar is a response to her upbringing.
“I grew up with Greek and Persian roots, so my culture was really heavily based around meat at the dinner table,” she says. Her venue, she hopes, will prove a compelling alternative to this idea that meat is indispensible. Certainly, many customers – from bodybuilders to kids – are eagerly backing her vegetarian eatery and its multicultural dishes.
For David and Tracy Nguyen, their Buddhist background meant vegetarian dishes were a regular tableside fixture. They also learnt a lot from their vego relatives over the years – knowledge that’s translated well to Golden Lotus, their vegan eatery in Sydney’s Newtown. It’s become so popular, it essentially doubled and took over the space next door within two years of opening.
“We want to show people that being vegan does not have to mean you are limited for choices,” says Tracy. So the mock meats – from the vegan duck pancakes to vegan fried fish with lemongrass – act like a gateway ingredient for curious diners.
It would take a “hectic” chef, like René Redzepi, to take on mock meats and change people’s ingrained attitudes about it.
“It is the best way to teach them Vegan 101 – being vegan is not that hard and the way we have lunch and dinner [is] just like other meat eaters, but in a healthier way,” says Tracy. That said, there’s a strong push from the kitchen to offer plant-based dishes and gluten-free options, too – the menu isn’t entirely about mock meats.
So even in vegetarian restaurants, faux meats aren’t as dominant as they used to be. And I wonder if in the world of fine dining, they’ll ever gain kudos and recognition. Sure, Buddhist monks have been quietly serving vegan wonders without being spotlight-chasers about it (and a chef like Shannon Martinez ingeniously creates bestsellers at her restaurants, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli, with from-scratch meats such as her vegan blood sausage and pastrami), but Dan Hong thinks it would probably take a “hectic” chef of international renown, like René Redzepi, to take on mock meats and fundamentally change people’s ingrained attitudes about it. (Certainly, the Impossible Burger – the tech start-up vegan pattie endorsed by David Chang for its convincing, bleeding qualities – has shifted opinions on faux meat, making it seem way more legit than it used to be.)
And Hong is open to doing some one-off experiments on the ingredient in the future.
“Yeah, I could probably try a vegan kung pao or something that someone can relate to. Like salt and pepper gluten,” he says, with a laugh.