Barima, my paternal grandmother, had a penchant for things that were not as they seemed. Naqli (fake) omelette was a fixture on her breakfast table. Made to look and taste exactly like the real deal, it was a pancake of gram flour, mixed with milk, broken-up bread, chopped green chillies and onions that could put any masala omelette to shame.
Another family special was mock fish made with plantain cut to resemble fillets, seasoned with carom and fenugreek. Sometimes, there was kaleji ki subzi , vegetarian liver akin to dhoka (literally “falsehood”), the no-onion-no-garlic Bengali delicacy. And the dinner table often saw kathal ki tahiri — a mock version of goat meat yakhni pulao , one of the most popular dishes of the Kayasth community. In short, my grandmother would hardly have been surprised by all the wonder products flooding the global market today, from Burger King’s Impossible burgers to Beyond Meat’s many sausages and steaks, and the jackfruit and pea protein offerings being conjured up in labs for the benefit of those who want the taste of meat while staying staunchly vegetarian.
Woke to the mock
As we step into a new decade, this whole sector of vegetarian/vegan meats is poised to surge. According to the US market research firm Reports and Data, the global plant-based meat market, which was valued at $10.10 billion in 2018, is expected to reach $30.92 billion by 2026, at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 14.8%. This huge interest is thanks to rising global awareness against ecological and health fallouts of heavy meat diets. Silvia Annavini, a 30-year-old wine consultant in Rome, tells me that she buys a lot of plant-based meat products because she wants to keep cholesterol in check. “Even more than the US, they are a big trend here because awareness of food in Italy is quite high. I now buy tempeh burgers, tofu cotoletta and so on, which are easy to cook, healthier, and taste and feel exactly like meat,” she says.
Just like Barima’s dishes, products like tempeh, a fermented soy product, and tofu have traditionally been used as mock meats in various Buddhist cultures. Europe and America are beginning to discover this ‘new’ use now. Similarly, jackfruit and pea protein (similar to our dals ), used in different communities to make mock meats, are now being claimed by makers of vegetarian meats as novelty, to create products that seem as close to real as possible — including steak which when cut has mock blood oozing out!
Globally, the reasons for such overwhelming interest in plant-based meats are twofold: health and environment. There is a growing movement pitching vegetarian/vegan diets as healthier than meat (or animal products) centric ones, an argument that we will examine later.
Secondly, the meat industry is seen as harmful for the environment, contributing to deforestation, methane emission, water pollution and more. While opinion is still divided on methods of calculating the impact — and whether it is one of the prime factors contributing to the “current sixth mass extinction”, as some influential studies have pitched — the path-breaking 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations does state that “the livestock sector is a major stressor on many ecosystems... Globally, it is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity”.
An influential 2010 study on water scarcity by Water FootprintNetwork also tabulated that while vegetables had a water footprint of about 322 litres per kg, chicken had 4,325 l/kg, sheep/goat meat 8,763 l/kg, and beef a stupendous 15,415 l/kg (though nuts came in at 9,063 l/kg, too).
The Indian scenario
But apart from these prime drivers, does India make for a viable market, both for the international biggies such as Tyson, Smithfield, Perdue, Hormel and Nestlé, and the slew of Indian start-ups that are floating indigenous alternatives?
Karan Bajaj, co-founder of a brand called Better that is soon to launch in Mumbai and Pune, talks about how the company is launching with two product ranges.
This would be dairy-free cheese spreads and jackfruit-based ready-to-cook curries. He sees immense potential for innovation as well as finding a market. “Our target audience is not limited to just vegans or vegetarians, but just about everyone who is interested in healthier eating,” he says. Better is betting on health as a USP.
Then, there are ventures like EVO, which are at a concept stage still and aim to develop egg dishes with lentil protein. Shraddha Bhansali, who runs Candy & Green, a vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Mumbai, started EVO six months ago. “Our first product is a liquid egg substitute. It has the same taste, texture and protein content as an egg, but without the cholesterol, risk of salmonella or antibiotics,” she says.
Bhansali believes vegan eggs will do well in India as they are a great “gateway product” — the Indian market views eggs in a grey area, as being vegetarian and non-vegetarian. However, she tells me candidly about the challenges facing mock meats here. “[When] we serve them at the restaurant, we see that vegetarians are put off by it and non-vegetarians would rather not eat fake meat. Our largest clientele is non-vegetarians who’ve turned vegan, which isn’t a big enough market yet,” she says. Yet, Bhansali hopes the segment will grow.
There are others like Vezley or GoodDo (with food trucks and outlets in Mumbai, Udaipur and Jaipur) that use soy as an ingredient. All pitch themselves as vegan companies. This is unlike many American companies like Impossible Foods, who’ve said that, in reality, they are not targeting the miniscule vegan population (pegged at 3% in the US, according to a 2018 Gallup poll) but the growing number of flexitarians (people who want less meat in their diets).
Not the vegetarian choice
Let us examine the market dynamics in India. With more than 30% vegetarians (as opposed to the roughly 10% global average), and more who are selectively non-vegetarian (certain meats, certain weekdays, et al), vegetarians are an obvious target group. Some chefs I spoke to claim that these alternatives will do quite well in India. “I’ve been importing, preparing and selling these products at my restaurants to good response and the demand will be huge in the coming years,” says Varun Tuli, one of India’s top wedding caterers, who runs the Asian casual dining chain, Yum Yum Cha. Other observers add that some early examples of these dishes are doing well in colleges and work campuses in cities like Bengaluru.
- Upscale restaurants that cater to the niche vegan segment are increasingly adding interesting options on their menus. At Delhi’s Olive Bar and Kitchen, chef Dhruv Oberoi uses jackfruit instead of pulled meats, a gluten steak packed with natural salts like seaweed, and so on. His gluten steak may in fact be quite akin to the chakki ki subzi Marwari grandmothers traditionally cooked, washing little bits of wheat dough under running water till only the gluten remained. This would then be roasted or fried, slathered in masala, and passed off as a meat treat. There are other experiments, too, such as “tapioca flour kneaded into fried dough balls” to prepare vegetarian food with umami and a “meaty texture”. However, chefs like Oberoi are clear that they want to prepare things from scratch instead of using processed foods. “Vegan is the current fad, but we should not forget that India has always been vegan,” he points out, and rightly so.
Many others, however, disagree. “My instinct is that it will not work. Vegetarians in India do not have a taste for meat; non vegetarians who want to cut down on meat are the target,” says Asma Khan of the UK-based Indian restaurant, Darjeeling Express. Chef Prateek Sadhu of Masque in Mumbai says 40% of his guests are vegetarian and he has, in fact, launched an exclusive all-vegetarian menu, which includes exotic and experimental dishes inspired by the flavours of Kashmir, including morels, chestnuts and onions in a broth of smoked yakhni made with sweet potatoes.
Sadhu points out that it is only quick service and mid-level restaurants in Southeast Asia and America who are using plant-based meat products. In India, the dining culture is different because even if an Indian is non-vegetarian, vegetables are a huge part of his or her meals. “Our meat alternatives are vegetables in their purest form,” he says.
Karan Tanna, founder Ghost Kitchens Pvt Ltd, a start-up into the cloud kitchen space, says he feels the market for plant-based meats in India is “too niche and already very cluttered. I’m not bullish about a single company riding this unless it has deep pockets to retain first mover position for a number of years,” he says.
Aside from this, points to ponder may be that we already have indigenous traditions of mock meats and a diet that is more carbohydrate and plant-based, even for meat eaters (potatoes in biryani , rice with fish curry, appam with chicken stew). So, health or even environment as a concern may not hold water. After all, if you are importing processed plant meats how valid can either be?