I wanted to get to know these various nu meat analogs, specifically this new generation of hi-tech, startup-spawned plant-based meat, so I bought their "raw" products. I poked them. I prodded them. I cooked them all the exact same way in three different dishes — bolognese, lu rou fan and pan-fried meatballs — to compare the results and get a better feel for the distinguishing qualities of one company's product versus another's.
I'm not a vegetarian. I'm not a frequent meat eater, either. Mostly I eat unprocessed whole foods, and on occasion, I eat (and enjoy) meat: all your usual suspects, plus stuff like offal and chicken feet. Which is to say, I am not your vegan friend who will try to tell you that the taste and texture of lab-grown, plant-based meats are "just like the real thing." At the same time, I care a lot about the need to build more sustainable food systems, so I'm not trying to clown on them, either.
Still with me? OK, let's meet the meat.
Right now there are about half a dozen brands being used in restaurants across Shanghai, but currently only three of them sell their uncooked products for home use: Omnipork, Beyond Meat and Z-Rou.
Plant-based pork products available in three varieties — ground, luncheon meat and meat strips. Launched in April 2018 by Hong Kong company Green Monday. Entered Shanghai market in November 2019, and also sold in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Macau. Chinese name 新猪肉 (xin zhu rou), means "new pork."
Mostly made of: pea and soy proteins, shiitake mushrooms and rice; also contains canola and sunflower oil, and beets (for coloring)
Cost: 28rmb for 230g on Tmall (12.2rmb per 100 grams)
Produced in: product packaging gets pretty specific with "ingredients sourced and proprietary blend produced in Canada; assembled in Thailand"
One of America's biggest plant-based meat brands (the other being Impossible Foods). Beyond makes several mock meat products, but is probably best known for its "ground beef" burger patties that taste, and even bleed, very similarly to real meat. The company started in 2009 and launched in Shanghai earlier this month. Currently it only sells its burger patties here, and only through Hema.
Mostly made of: pea, mung bean and rice proteins; also contains coconut oil and cocoa butter for the "marbling," canola oil and beets (for coloring)
Price: 59.9rmb for 2 patties (total 227g) on Hema (26.4rmb per 100 grams)
Produced in: California
Launched in December 2019. Currently only sells one plant-based pork product available in two forms, ground and minced. Its parent company, YouKuai Group, is from Shanghai. Its Chinese name, 株肉 (zhu rou), is a homophone for pork meat, but in this case “zhu” refers to trees and plants rather than pigs. Z-Rou positions itself as a "premium" product.
Mostly made of: soybean protein, konjac, shiitake mushrooms; also contains coconut oil and sorghum extract (for coloring)
Price: 79mb for 300g through Z-Rou's WeChat miniprogram (26.3rmb per 100 grams) or cheaper here
Produced in: Ningbo
I got the ground version of Omnipork, both versions of Z-Rou's pork (ground and minced) and Beyond Meat's beef burger patties (Beyond's ground beef isn't available in China yet). First, I sautéed a scoop of each one. No seasonings, no oil. I just wanted to get a feel for the natural — well, "natural" — flavor and texture of each one.
I then applied them to the most common ways that people tend to use their animal-based counterparts: in meat sauces, and in meatballs. I split the sauce test into two sub-categories because I wondered if certain meat analogs would interact better (or worse) with a more subtle, vegetable-heavy sauce (the bolognese, with tomato, soffritto and mushrooms) versus a heavier, highly aromatic one (the lu rou, with soy sauce, shaoxing wine, Chinese five spice, fried shallots and shiitake).
So, six sauces total. I did this by prepping a "bolognese base" and "lu rou base" — making a large batch of each sauce, fully cooked with all ingredients minus the meat analogs. Then I browned each mock meat independently in the pan with safflower oil and finished the sauces by heating four tablespoons of base sauce with three tablespoons of "meat" to create each sample.
This way, the sauces and cooking processes are constant. The only difference across all batches of bolognese and rou zao is the "meat" used. And since the plant fats in these mock meats are far more subtle in flavor and richness than animal-based fats, I didn't feel I'd be missing much by sautéing the mock meat separately from the rest of the dish. And apparently, simmering them for too long can actually cause a noticeable loss in flavor and texture.
I'd read tips from chefs who said that vegan meat benefits a lot from strong seasoning, so I made a sort-of Turkish kofte, mixing the same amount of fresh garlic and parsley, ground coriander, ground cumin, allspice and onion for each meatball. Although some people add breadcrumbs or eggs as binding agents to help shape mock meatballs, I didn't add any in because I wanted to see how well each one would do independent of outside help.
Note: for the Z-Rou, I mixed the minced and ground versions, half and half, since it was the only one that came in two different textures and... well, this stuff's new to me, OK? I'm experimenting.
THE RESULTS Sauteed, No Seasoning
Omnipork: Well, this tastes the way a can of Fancy Feast smells. There's even a metallic taste that lingers on the tongue. Above all, there's a discernible bean-y flavor... but pork? If your tastebuds squint real hard, I guess. The texture is more convincing — there's a bite to it, even if it is a little chewier than it needs to be. This one's also the least fatty of the three.
Beyond: Pleasantly close to the real thing, though both the taste and texture are more akin to having bits of a reheated frozen sausage patty, rather than actual ground beef. There's a prominent smoky, char-grilled flavor — you can smell it from a distance, and you're hit with it even from just a small nibble of this stuff. It's also convincingly fatty. That same tinny taste that Omnipork has is here too, but less obvious.
Z-Rou: Hard to pin this one down. Its most prominent flavor is probably mushroom. Its flavor bears the least resemblance to that of actual meat, but at least that tinny taste isn't there. It's noticeably sweeter. There's also a very light nuttiness... is that coconut? Can't tell. Those white bits in the mixture melt on the tongue, mimicking the fatty parts of ground pork. The minced version has soft chunks that crumble easily — not much chew to it. The ground version is very finely textured, like a light and airy pork floss.
Omnipork: This complemented the tomato sauce quite well, and allowed the flavors of the other ingredients to come through. But, that tinny taste is still perceptible. The "chew" of the minced meat is very similar to that of actual bolognese, and it kept the liquid level of the base sauce fairly intact, rather than absorbing it.
Beyond: That distinctive char-grilled flavor overpowered the tomato sauce entirely. The texture didn't work here either. It has too much texture for a bolognese, requiring a level of vigorous chewing that feels like the pasta-eating version of overexercising.
Z-Rou: The built-in sweetness of this product resulted in an overly sweet bolognese that lacked depth of flavor. It also absorbed more liquid than the other mock meats did, which may have something to do with my inclusion of the ultra-fine ground version. Even so, the minced version broke down into smaller crumbles than when they started out, which meant that the final sauce didn't have the "chew" of real minced meat.
Lu Rou Fan
Omnipork: This adapted to the heavy flavors of lu rou very well, and that persistent metallic flavor was nearly gone. The ground "pork" separated into morsels that were just the right size for lu rou, though they were just a tad too chewy. The oil from the base sauce is still visible in the end result, which means it didn't get absorbed by the mock meat.
Beyond: That char-grilled flavor cannot be tamed! It turned this sauce into something that could not even remotely be recognized as lu rou. The end result tasted more like an experimental barbecue sauce than anything of Chinese culinary origin. It was also particularly salty and oily. Forgive me, Frankenstein.
Z-Rou: This one turned out really one-dimensional — just cloyingly sweet. It's likely because Z-Rou naturally has a prominent sweetness to it, so I'd need to adjust the amount of rock sugar to account for that. Also, most of the "meat" broke down into very small pieces, soaked up all of the oil and liquid from the base sauce, and threw off the consistency completely.
Omnipork: The original flavor of the "pork" didn't mesh well with the other ingredients here. That tinny note came back, and was even more prominent in the aftertaste. The fresh parsley didn't incorporate at all, which caused the meatball to taste more vegetal than meaty. It was pretty dry and crumbly, too. A serious case of failed flavor Tetris.
Beyond: Finally, a dish that plays well with that char-grilled character of Beyond Meat patties. The textural nuances were really similar to those of an actual meatball, too. If I were walking around with drunken munchies and you said "here, have some grilled lamb kofte," I could reasonably believe that this was that.
Z-Rou: All of the seasonings came together and produced a nice balance of flavors here. The natural sweetness works in this setting, and the fine, crumbly texture resulted in a patty that had the pleasant texture of crab cakes. It browned well and developed a deep toasted flavor on the exterior. Maybe the 50-50 mixture of ground and minced "meats" actually helped with the binding action.
Though I started out thinking that I would favor one of these mock meats more than the others — choosing the "best" at the end of this process — I'm not sure that that really makes sense now. There's definitely a learning curve involved in understanding how to get the best uses out of each "meat," but even with these first-time trials, it's pretty clear that none of these products is a one-size-fits-all, do-everything-great meat analog.
Beyond Meat makes the best burger of the three. There is no contest. But it also makes terrible Chinese food. If you want to make something other than burgers, you've got to adapt the dish to the heavy flavoring built-in to this product. Or just stick with the burger.
Omnipork seems aimed at versatility. It has a subtle flavoring and fairly realistic ground pork texture, the combination of which makes it good for incorporating into a variety of dishes. I say "incorporating" because it's kind of like a wallflower — it's present, but it won't mingle with the other ingredients to do much flavor building.
Z-Rou has the least meat-like texture and taste, but it's also the least artificial-tasting of the three, and the one that's most reminiscent of actual plants. It doesn't produce the more realistic meaty mouthfeel that the other products do, but it also doesn't have their pronounced chemical aftertaste. Its umami factor seems to come from mushrooms.
As for the other looming question of why — why pay for a product that is more expensive than real meat, but also doesn't perform as well? That's a judgment call you've got to make, but for me it comes down to this: we've let our taste for and attachment to eating meat get out of control.
I get it. It tastes good. Amazing, even, a lot of the time. But it's become such an expected part of each meal that people now see eating meat as a default part of their diets. How many times have we eaten sad, dry pieces of chicken, or tough, sinewy slices of beef and thought nothing of it — just went through the motions and chewed it down simply for the fact that it was there?
These plant-based meat alternatives are not going to replace the full flavor and texture of meat, if you're a meat eater. But they're satisfying enough if you want to cut down on eating so much meat. The potential gains elsewhere, to me, are worth it — less mass-scale factory farming, less environmental damage, less animal suffering. All that, to me, is also worth the extra cost.
Of course, it's still early days for these products (except for Beyond Meat, which has been out for awhile and has released "new and improved" versions of its burger patties since its initial launch) — so maybe some people would rather wait until the technology improves and these meat analogs become more convincingly meaty. I'd say now's a good time to start getting your feet wet — many chefs are already doing some pretty creative stuff with these "meats", so if you don't feel comfortable cooking with them yet, that's a good place to start.