There are lots of things wrong with the factory model of meat production. We could spend this entire article haranguing you about how it pollutes our waterways or how it contributes to global warming by destroying our rain forests and pumping methane into the atmosphere. We could turn your stomach by describing in grisly detail every step of the meat processing industry. We could terrify you about the potential health risks of excessive meat consumption, from heart disease to antibiotic resistance. But when did any of that kind of stuff ever change anybody's mind? Food is here to be enjoyed. So rather than guilting you or scaring you into cutting back on your meat intake, let's talk possibilities. You might be surprised to learn that there are plenty of them with Zrou, a plant-based meat substitute made right here in China. Shanghai has a lot of culinary talent that has been putting this ingredient to good use. Many of them will be putting this talent to the test in the 2nd Annual Zrou Chili Cook-Off this month. More on that later. In the meantime, here are some of the other delicious things they're doing with Zrou.
Shanghai's Fake Meat Revolution. We Tried 10 Dishes...
By Scott Cooper
Seeing an ingredient like Zrou on the menu at a Texas barbecue joint is a bit like seeing a ham and cheese sandwich on the menu at a Jewish deli. And some would even say that it's equally sacrilegious. But for Ken Walker, owner of Bubba’s Food Co., cooking with Zrou "is kind of a no-brainer." "Yes, we're traditionally a meat-heavy restaurant," he explains. "But we're seeing more and more customers who want a healthier alternative." It didn't take long for Ken to discover that he could treat Zrou a lot like meat. "We're a smokehouse. I'm a Texan. We smoke stuff. So I smoked it," he quips. And it worked. He found that he could give it a flavor profile similar to the barbecue his restaurant is famous for. Apple wood-smoked Zrou is the x-factor in his Texas Caviar. It's a salad of corn, beans, black-eyed peas, onions, peppers, jalapeños, spices, and vinegar. You don't traditionally put meat in a dish like this, but smoked Zrou gives it new dimensions of texture and aromatics. Side note: we photographed this dish with a beer in the background just to underscore the point that you aren't obligated to drink a kale and chia seed smoothie with plant-based meat substitutes.
When you have a massive menu of elevated sports bar grub, the challenge is finding a place where an ingredient like Zrou will stand out. It's competing with burgers, sandwiches, wings, the occasional Chicago deep-dish pizza, barbecue once a week. It's easy to get lost on a menu like that, which is why Cages chef and partner Jason Oakley went straight to product's essence. "I wanted to play to the product's strengths when developing a dish," says Oakley, "so I considered Zrou's main ingredients — shiitake mushrooms, konjac, coconut oil, soy. Something inspired by Chinese cuisine seemed the obvious choice." From there, it was easy. Take a wok. Heat it up. Throw in some shiitakes and golden thread mushrooms. A splash of soy sauce. Toss in some tender, sweet garlic stems and a few snow peas. Serve it over steamed rice. Boom! Done! The kind of thing you could probably do in your own kitchen too.
Without Cantina Agave, there might be no Zrou as we know it today. "I let them use my kitchen as their test kitchen," owner Raffe Ibrahamian tells us. "Then, we were the early adopters, the first ones in Shanghai to serve it." That makes sense; the product is especially amenable to being tucked into a tortilla. Exhibit A: Cantina's Zrou tacos. Raffe tells us that Zrou takes on bold flavors like cumin, garlic, onion and chili powder almost instantly. "We don't even need add it to the pan until the rest of the ingredients are almost done simmering," he says. When it's ready, all it needs is a dollop of guac, a sprig of cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. "I like to dial up the heat with one of our salsas too," Raffe adds.
Then there is Cantina Agave’s burrito. Check out that beautiful burrito cross section! You've got that schmear of black beans on the inner surface of the tortilla. Inside that, you've got your Zrou, rice, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce. They wrap it all up tight as a drum and then give it a couple of minutes on the sandwich press for a toasty, crispy outer shell.
You don't need to be a professionally trained chef or restaurateur to do good things with this stuff. Chhaya Ravikiran Chaudari is proof. She moved from India to China six years ago with her husband and two children. Cooking was always a hobby for her — something to share with her family and friends and a way to stay connected to home. "I learned the fundamentals from my mother, all the small things you have to do," she recalls. Her cooking soon got a reputation among her circle of friends, she was even getting requests from them. Before long, she was teaching classes in Indian cookery. Now she even helps restaurants like Kebabs on the Grille develop recipes. Zrou learned about her, gave her some samples, and let her get to work. "I've worked with a lot of different mock meats," says Chhaya, "this one works especially well. It really absorbs spice flavors and works with everything I cook, every technique I use — frying, roasting, anything." One of her favorite recipes is kofta, which is traditionally a meatball or kebab made from seasoned ground lamb. She seasons Zrou with too many spices to list here, adds a little heat with chili powder, binds it all together with potatoes and chickpea flour and then roasts it in a pan.
Kofta Curry It
It's a highly adaptable recipe, too. She tweaks the mix with a bit more binding and then rolls it into balls that get simmered in a fragrant gravy of coconut milk, cashews, and a blend of spices like garam masala, turmeric, and cumin. The result: a classic kofta curry. Both recipes are 100% vegan, by the way.
Chhaya has also found that that Zrou is pretty damn good in samosas. She mixes it with peas and her own secret spice blend. Then she wraps the mixture in skins made with all-purpose flour and studded with fragrant carom seeds. After that, she deep-fries or bakes them. For best results, dip them in tamarind-date or coriander chutney.
Pistolera puts Zrou to use in more dishes than we can even get into here. "We found that it works a lot like the chorizo we use in our other dishes," says Chef Afa Zhang, "so it's very easy to swap it out." But at Pistolera’s Shanghai Center branch, Afa has discovered that it works quite well for Sichuan-style dan dan mian too. And it is a popular lunchtime staple for all the nearby office workers. Yeah. A Tex-Mex restaurant where you can get Chinese noodles. Only in Shanghai. The Zrou mince swaps out seamlessly with the seasoned sautéed ground pork that is traditionally served with this dish. It takes on the bold flavors of Sichuan peppercorn and chili oil. Afa then finishes the dish off with chopped preserved long beans, minced chilies, boiled quail eggs, and toasted peanuts for a bit of crunch.
If you can noodle Zrou, surely you can dumpling Zrou. Chef Afa gives us solid proof of concept at Pistolera's sister restaurant and bar, Big Bamboo, with his Zrou guotie, or pan-fried dumplings. He tells us this one is popular even with non-vegetarian diners. "Especially when we're showing big games on our screens," he adds. Ironically, Afa replaces American-style barbecued pulled pork with Zrou in this dish. What can we say? Cuisine is like an infinite Möbius strip, constantly turning in on itself. Deep, man. Deep…
Of course Zrou works with chili! Cantina Agave’s chili (pictured here) is just one example. But you'll have the opportunity to try dozens of others and even see some of these chefs and home cooks in action at Zrou's Annual Chili Cook-Off. Scan this QR code to book your tickets. Use the code: SPICYSMSH for some extra perks.Are you interested in seeing what you can do with Zrou? Scan the QR code below, get in touch with Zrou's Vice President of BD, and learn more!