Happy National Vegetarian Week! There is little that is new under the sun, and that also goes for “fake meat”—a term with a negative connotation but certainly catchier than “plant-based protein” or “meat analog.” This particular type of culinary trompe l’oeil (French for “that which deceives the eye”) has its roots most notably in Japan, a country that’s home to two ancient, intertwined examples of the art form: mukimono (decorative vegetable carving) and modoki, the mock foods of the temple cuisine that originated in the seventh century.
“The inherent respect for life that eschews consumption of animal products as food has deep history in Japan,” wrote Japanese-food authority Elizabeth Andoh in a paper presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery in 2008. “Japan’s indigenous spiritual orientation, Shinto, discouraged the regular consumption of animals for food. When Buddhism arrived in Japan from mainland Asia in the late 6th century, previous reticence turned to prohibition. The first edict to officially ban meat-eating was proclimated by Emperor Temmu in 675 AD, and from that point Japanese culinary activity focused on the plant world.”
Human nature is nothing if not complicated and contrary, and Andoh took care to elaborate: “A longing for meat, or at least hefty and hearty fare [...] continued, especially among the privileged classes that had become accustomed to feasting on foods such as wild game and fowl after sporting hunts. The Heian Period (794–1185 AD) saw the development of a host of modoki dishes. These ‘mock’ foods seemed to be one thing (wild goose, duck, eel, or perhaps an omelet) when in reality they were something quite different (mostly derived from soy).”
Modoki foods engage the chef and diner in a special relationship, Andoh added. “The culinary practitioner must have keen powers of observation to discern what shape, texture, color gradation, flavor, or aroma will convey the essence of that food or object to the person who is dining. In turn, the diner must come to the table with a vivid imagination and a sense of humor. Japan’s culinary trompe l’oeil is not about deception, but rather about kando (awe) and kansha (appreciation).” Perhaps it’s time to start looking at tofu turkey—the Rodney Dangerfield of the meat-alternative universe—in a different light.
Andoh gave examples of several modoki dishes that have been enjoyed for centuries and probably much longer. Included in an 18th-century recipe collection called Tofu Hyaku Chin (“One Hundred Unusual Things to Do With Tofu”), is gan modoki (“evocation of wild goose”), a mock meatball made from mashed tofu mixed with bits of marine and terrestrial vegetables. Bound together with viscous, grated yam, the meatball is deep-fried, then simmered in a soy-tinged broth. “Still a tremendously popular menu item, pre-made ganmo (the shortened ‘nickname’ used currently to describe these dumplings) are sold at every tofu shop and supermarket in Japan,” she wrote.
In the United States, the increasing demand for mock meats was the subject of a recent piece in the business section of The New York Times. It’s fueled by “trends as varied as increased vegetarianism and concerns over the impact of industrial-scale animal husbandry on the environment,” wrote Stephanie Strom. “For whatever reason, the desire to replace meat proteins with proteins derived from plants is spreading, although the market is still minuscule. Mintel, a market research firm, reports that sales of meat alternatives grew 8 percent from 2010 to 2012, when sales hit $553 million.”
Morningstar Farms accounts for more than 60 percent of the market (the brand’s product line includes veggie dogs, burgers made from ingredients such as black beans and chickpeas, and breakfast sandwiches), while new companies, such as Gardein and Beyond Meat, have sprung up in the past five years or so.
“Some investors look at the development of viable meat alternatives as a sustainability issue,” Strom wrote. “ ‘Frankly, we’ve never said we’ve interested in food,’ said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, a venture capital firm that has backed Google and Facebook—and Beyond Meat.” The story continues: “Among the problems he listed that his firm’s investment in Beyond Meat are intended to address are land and water use, stress on global supple chains, and the world’s growing population. ‘These are venture-scale problems with venture-scale returns,’ Mr. Komisar said.”
They’re all that and then some, but just how environmentally friendly are meat alternatives? Not so much, as it turns out. In a November 2012 market trends piece on Food Navigator, Caroline Scott-Thomas writes that the fractionation process used to separate soy and wheat, for example, into their constituent parts—proteins, oils, and soluble and insoluble fibers—is often highly energy intensive. She quotes Atze van der Goot, associate professor of food process engineering at Wageningen University, who spoke at the European Federation of Food Science and Technology, in Montpellier, France: “ ‘Due to the inefficiencies in the process to make meat alternatives, we lose completely the environmental benefits.’ ” But he went on to suggest that perhaps complete fractionation was not necessary. “ ‘Partial fractionation might be sufficient, and partial fractionation is of course more energy efficient,’ ” he said. Wageningen’s Jacqueline Berghout, who researches meat analogs derived from—get this—lupin seeds, built on his idea in another session. “ ‘First we take the whole product apart and then we add [the constituents] together to make a product out of it...because we are focused on the purity of the fractions,” she explained, concluding, “Is it really necessary to make these pure ingredients? No food consists of one single ingredient.”
Even if meat analogs, which are primarily made from soy, can be produced in a more sustainable way, there’s no getting around that today soy is a controversial ingredient health-wise, and if it’s not organic, it’s genetically modified. Meat alternatives also may contain higher levels of sodium than their real meat counterparts.
The takeaway? Meat alternatives are a choice. No one says you have to incorporate them into your diet, but if you’re curious, give them a try. Especially if a family member balks at a cauliflower “steak” or a portobello mushroom burger, a meat-alternative chili or lasagna, for instance, or chicken salad may help pave the way for more meatless meals. Do some comparison shopping beforehand, and look for products with as few (and non-G.M.) ingredients as possible, with low sodium.