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Check That Chicken Nugget: It Might Just Be a Plant

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Allison Don is not a paranoid eater, but when faced with dishes made with mock meat, the vegetarian occasionally has one of her carnivorous friends take the first bite -- just to be certain it isn't the real thing.

"You can't tell sometimes," the 24-year-old Arlington resident said of the latest generation of imitation meats, a sample of which appeared in her "Chicken" Deluxe lunch at Java Green in Washington. "I wouldn't be able to tell unless one of my friends tasted it, or I picked it apart."

As sales have grown, so has the intrigue about these plant-based meat substitutes, which strongly resemble butcher's wares and fishermen's daily catches. For instance, uninformed diners at the Vegetable Garden in Rockville might think that the main ingredient in the Hunan beef once grazed in verdant fields. Or that the "chicken" in Java Green's ramen soup once clucked. Fake meats are masterful copycats: The "shrimp" are tinted pink and curl like apostrophes; "bacon" is marbled with white strips of yam masquerading as fat.

"It looks too real," said Terry Yuin, the 56-year-old native of Taiwan who runs Terry's Healthy Food in Rockville, which sells to retail customers and supplies imitation meats to about 40 area restaurants, including Java Green and the Vegetable Garden. "A lot of people are scared."

Of course, some vegetarians might relish the idea of eating a pig's foot made of soy protein; others, however, would rather starve than chomp on an ersatz appendage. Why, carnivores might ask, would someone who shies away from meat want to dine on a simulacrum of it? Why not just eat your veggies? It all depends on what kind of non-meat eater you are: philosophical or pragmatic.

Philosophical vegetarians, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, avoid meat for ethical reasons and prefer foods that taste and look like plant life. Conversely, pragmatic vegetarians love meat but not the nutritional pitfalls that come with it. "They want [vegetarian food] to taste like ground beef," Wansink said, "but without the animal fat."

For both types of non-meat eaters, flavor and texture are imperative. Diners with advanced palates will no longer settle for veggie burgers that resemble sun-baked mulch or tofu hot dogs as rubbery as erasers.

"Some of the fake meats are better than others: the chicken and the pork," said Per Milam, 24, a San Diego philosophy student, He was referring to mock meats in general, not his jobche noodles at Java Green."The shrimp is really bad," added Allison Don, his girlfriend, who works on the Hill. "It is made of yam and smells of stinky seafood."

While Buddhists in Asia have been dining on imitation meats for ages (per their harm-no-living-creatures diet), one of the earliest alternative meats to appear on Western shelves was the VegeBurger, created in 1982 by the English natural foods pioneer Gregory Sams. The healthful burger was made of wheat protein, sesame seeds, oats, soy protein and dehydrated vegetables: an innovative alternative to the ubiquitous beef patty.

More than two decades later, veggie burgers and their ilk no longer require explanation or apology. They are (almost) mainstream: In 2002, Burger King started serving the BK Veggie Burger nationwide, and some pro league sports stadiums sell veggie burgers. See, real men do eat fake meat.

To meet the rising demand for more salubrious cuisine, mock meats have been vastly improving and evolving, earning a place on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid (look under "Meat & Beans") and in the kitchens of many professional and home chefs. From 1992 to 2006, the Soyfoods Association of North America reported a spike in soy food sales from $300 million to $3.9 billion nationwide. Soy also received a boost in 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the health claim that the protein reduces heart disease. A soy chicken a day. . . .

"More and more people are becoming open to eating meat alternatives," said Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University. "Plant-based protein has no cholesterol and is low in saturated fat." Two MorningStar Farms veggie sausage links, for instance, contain 0.5 gram of saturated fat, 9 grams of protein and no cholesterol. By comparison, an equivalent amount of beef sausage contains 5 grams of saturated fat, 8 grams of protein and 37 milligrams of cholesterol.

DJ Kim, owner of Java Green, which recently won a Most Progressive Restaurant Award from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says his customers have more than just their healthy hearts in mind when they dine sans meat. "People want to cut down on their meat consumption because they are concerned about E. coli, foot-and-mouth disease and the meat process," he said. "They are concerned about what they eat and where their food comes from." (About nine months after opening in June 2003, the cafe turned all-veg in an effort to "become more earth-friendly," Kim said.)

To be sure, unlike with many processed meats, the ingredients in the fake versions don't require a chemist's dictionary to decode. Most substitute meats are derived from one of three "meat analogs": soy protein, wheat gluten (seitan) or tofu. Gluten, the "white meat" of the veg world, is noted for its chewiness and dense texture, and it often appears in stews and beefy recipes. Soy protein is more malleable and easily wears many disguises: pork, chicken, fish, turkey, etc. As Yuin of Terry's Healthy Food explains, the "chicken" patty can pass for poultry, beef, pork or black pepper steak. Tofu is best for scrambling, salads and stir fries.

"You can easily manipulate the taste," said Gail Naftalin, owner of Gail's Vegetarian Catering in Wheaton. "You're not trying to trick people; you're just trying to create an end result that is extremely close to the original."

Naftalin readily incorporates alternative meats into her gourmet menu, which has been prepared for clients as diverse as the Mars candy company and the Humane Society of the United States. Her holiday offerings included petit "meat" loaf and barbecued spare ribs, and her standard menu features such culinary classics as boudin, pot roast and beef bourguignon -- all prepared with seitan.

Vegebest, a California-based mock-meat manufacturer, enhances its products with spices and other ingredients in an effort to replicate the real-meat experience. For its "salmon," the company uses seaweed to suggest an ocean taste and carrot powder to re-create the pink flesh color. However, sometimes the embellishments veer toward the comical: A chicken breast with a cross-hatch anatomical design resembles toy poultry best served in a Fisher-Price kitchen, and the "bone" in the drumstick is actually a chopstick stub. Do you serve the protein popsicle as an entree or a dessert?

"It is easier to know the taste and texture of the [imitation meat], and how to cook it, if it is almost the same as the real one," explained Vegebest vice president Helen Ou when asked why mock meats are designed to approximate their full-blooded counterparts.

Yet newbies to the alt-meat world, or those cooking for wary pals and mates, might need some initial coaching in the kitchen. First lesson: Make friends with condiments, sauces and spices.

Naftalin sprinkles paprika, garlic and anise flavoring into many of her dishes. Blake advises cooks to "mimic the foods you are familiar with." She suggests dousing "meatballs" in tomato sauce, mixing soy crumbles into spaghetti sauce for pasta, or smothering a veg patty with salsa and low-fat cheese, popping it inside a whole-wheat pita and calling it a Mexican burger. Meanwhile, Wansink recommends marinating the faux meat, then dimming the lights. "It might be difficult at first for a beef-etarian," he said, "so you might need to disguise it."

Or you can always borrow the technique of Germaine Andino-Rexach. The 22-year-old medical assistant at a Virginia community college prepared tacos for his meat-loving roommates one night, substituting soy crumbles for ground beef. Only after they finished their meal did he admit the switch.

"They were like, 'Ooh, that was so disgusting,' " he said. Yet their plates were clean.

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