Tempeh for mixed company: how plant-based proteins are encouraging chefs in India to experiment

A popular choice when you have both vegetarians and meat eaters at the table, plant-based proteins are encouraging chefs in India to experiment

Updated - February 26, 2021 01:13 pm IST

Published - February 26, 2021 12:56 pm IST

My first encounter with mock meat was at a tiny stall in Andheri five years back. Amid the throng of kiosks selling kebabs andtikkas was Chaap ki Chhap. It looked like any of its neighbours, skewers of cubed ‘meat’ hanging over an open flame. Except this meat was actually soya. More recently, I tried another variant — pulled jackfruit served on a latke , accompanying cups of delicate sencha tea. The jackfruit felt closer to meat than the soya did, with its stringy texture and ability to hold flavour.

Today the options are increasing and the conversation around alternative meats is picking up — and not just because India Protein Day (February 27) is turning the focus on plant-based sources of the macronutrient. “The pandemic has taught us how animal agriculture is not sustainable and we have to move to superior sources of protein,” says Siddharth Kothari, Chief Investment Strategist of Om Kothari Group, which invests in plant-based protein.

Interestingly, the people making the shift aren’t just vegans. “There are vegetarians looking to add more protein to their diet [especially athletes and those who take their fitness seriously]. Also, a lot of folks who label themselves non-vegetarian actually consume more vegetarian food and are missing out on nutrition potency. So they are seeking out alternative sources too,” says Siddharth Ramasubramanian, CEO of Vegolution, a Bengaluru-based nutrition start-up that makes vegetarian protein-rich food.

Faux and lovely

The last year has seen the launch of the Greenest range of kebabs in Delhi; plant-based chicken nuggets and kheema (from soybeans and peas) by Mumbai start-up Blue Tribe Foods; jackfruit meat by Wakao Foods in Goa; and five tofu flavours (made from organic soybean) by Bengaluru’s Living Food Co. There’s also ProPlant Foods working on a chicken alternative using elephant foot yam. And Bollywood actors Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh recently announced a new plant-based venture called Imagine Meats.

“It is tasty and versatile. Today, people want to enjoy their food and feel satisfied that they are getting the nutrition they need and plant-based protein fits these requirements,” says Ramasubramanian. This week, Vegolution will release a range of ready-to-eat tempeh products under the brand, Hello Tempayy. Made from fermented soybeans, its umami flavour and firm texture are pluses, as are its probiotic qualities and protein content — it contains all the essential amino acids and 18 gm protein (per 100 gm). Vegolution’s three options (Szechuan Chilli, Tawa Masala and Sriracha) are also fortified with Vitamin B12 and iron.

Plant-based protein is a great transitional food for people who are trying to adopt healthier diets. “Consumers are ready to experiment with healthy offerings. If it is clean and wholesome, they will pay a little extra for it,” says Sairaj Dhond of Wakao Foods. As a child growing up in Goa, he recalls eating the tropical fruit — which his grandmother called chicken- achi bhaji in several home preparations. Dhond chose to work with jackfruit because it not only offered a similar texture and appearance to meat, but it is also nutritionally rich — chock-full of fibre, but with no fat or cholesterol.

Trials in the kitchen

A 2019 study by Mumbai-based nonprofit, Good Food Institute, had found that 63% of Indians are likely to purchase plant-based meat regularly. The numbers would have certainly gone up post pandemic, and brands are responding to this increase in consumer awareness by tying up with restaurants and food delivery services to better their visibility and reach. Vegolution is in talks with health food delivery spaces, restaurants, and cloud kitchens in Bengaluru, while Wakao retails at 27 outlets, and 30 restaurants and resorts in Goa.

Yauatcha uses mock meat across their restaurants in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata — in dim sum, stir-fry and noodles, including their bestseller, Mock Meat Poached Peking Dumpling. “It has always been widely used in Cantonese cooking as an alternative,” says Kushal Lama, the head chef of Yauatcha Kolkata. “It is the middle ground that people can agree to when ordering for the table, as it is liked by both meat eaters and vegetarians.”

Bastian in Mumbai chose to add it in the form of soy products and tofu. “We are seeing a growing consciousness among our guests to eat more plant-based food,” says Amol Phute, Chef de Cuisine, Bastian Hospitality Pvt Ltd, adding that they have been making an effort to include more items in their menu.

A few home chefs are also experimenting with creating their own alt-meats. Mumbai-based lawyer, Uma Arora, has been making tempeh for over a year. A family staple, she now takes orders and, occasionally, supplies to restaurants under her brand, Culture Bakes. “People are becoming aware of plant-based protein, but there’s still a lot of education needed to convince them to make the switch,” she concludes.

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