Omnipork is targeting an Asian audience and knows exactly what to bring to the table. Could this be the start of Asia’s vegan revolution?

At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, plant-based titan Impossible Foods unveiled a much-anticipated new product: Impossible Pork. In January, another new creation, Impossible Sausage, was slated to sell at select Burger Kings across the US in the form of a breakfast croissant, but both of these Impossible additions have since been delayed. At CES, many were excited about a new type of plant-based meat; thanks to the runaway success of mostly “beef”-centric brands like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, pork seemed like a fresh new idea.

But plant-based pork isn’t exactly a novelty — it’s long been a part of vegetarian food cultures in Asia, and with the advent of better technology, today it can even taste (almost) like the real thing.

In 2012, Hong Kong-based food startup Green Monday launched with the goal of promoting a vegetarian lifestyle in a decidedly omnivorous culture. But while meat plays a prominent part in East Asian cuisines — something that Green Monday is hoping to influence — mock meat has actually been a part of Chinese Buddhist fare for centuries, dating all the way back to the Tang Dynasty.

Its Chinese name — 新猪肉 — literally means ‘new pork.’

Noted food expert Fuchsia Dunlop has described in detail how medieval Chinese used tofu, seitan, and vegetables to create elaborate fake meat dishes, an illusive tradition that uses ingredients to resemble other ingredients. It seems fitting, then, that Green Monday’s subsidiary right{treat} was the first to launch a modern version of plant-based pork in 2018, which they named Omnipork.

“Pork is by far the most consumed meat in Asia,” says Green Monday co-founder David Yeung, who believes that the region’s strong economy and growing wealth affluence and strong growth trends will soon make its preferred choice of meat untenable. “It is only a matter of time before the hog industry becomes unsustainable,” he explained via email, “which is now evidenced by the African swine fever.” First reported in late 2018, the viral outbreak took a little over a year to kill off 40% of China’s sow herds, prompting the government to release emergency reserves of frozen pork for the 2020 Lunar New Year.

Green Monday Cofounder David Yeung.

Even without swine fever as a pressing threat to a huge food supply, it’s clear that more people are turning to plant-based meat as a new option in the face of worsening climate change and environmental destruction. In the age of being so-called extremely online, with information being pumped out of the health and wellness industries, people are more concerned about their food; Yeung thinks that general concern for healthier eating has “skyrocketed.” And while western markets have eagerly embraced plant-based proteins as a new norm, Omnipork takes a different approach to its better-known counterparts, based on how pork is typically used in Asian cuisine. Its Chinese name — 新猪肉 — literally means “new pork.”

“In the East, meat may not stand alone as the full dish, like a steak, bacon, sausage, or burger. It is often blended or incorporated into a dish with other ingredients,” said Yeung, comparing staple foods in North America. Indeed, pork can be found mixed into a plethora of dishes across the East Asian food pantheon, including dumplings, dimsum, meatballs, and various types of noodles. That isn’t even counting staple broths that are made with pork bones, like Japanese tonkotsu ramen, or savory Chinese zong (glutinous rice dumplings) that almost always have a little pork hiding inside them.

Omnipork is also made to be steamed, one of the most common Asian cooking methods. Yeung believes that pork is a “foundation ingredient” in Asian cooking, which is the key to Omnipork’s versatility.

If nobody had told me this wasn’t real pork, I wouldn’t have known.

On paper, Omnipork checks many, if not all, of the same boxes as its western brethren: It’s promoted as a more sustainable, healthier alternative to real meat that still tastes like actual pork. It’s made from peas, soy, shiitake mushrooms, and rice. Green Monday claims that its flagship product is 66% lower in calories and 86% lower in saturated fat, while also having 260% more calcium and 127% more iron than the real thing.

On a plate, Omnipork looks and tastes pretty good. On a trip to Shanghai last December, I ordered it in “flexitarian” bolognese pasta at Wagas, a chain of healthy eating cafes. The tomato sauce admittedly camouflaged the Omnipork, but the texture and flavor were spot-on what you’d expect from a meat sauce. If nobody had told me this wasn’t real pork, I wouldn’t have known. Green Monday has also extended Omnipork to fast food — even China’s Taco Bell outlets are serving it as a meatless alternative in hard-shell crunchy tacos.

Of course, while China’s formidable consumer base is a much-coveted market for any brand, there’s also much more potential for meatless pork substitutes beyond its borders. Besides East Asia and Chinese-majority countries, the rest of the continent is filled with vastly different cultures, religions and social practices from community to community. For starters, Asia also includes Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter being the most populous Muslim country in the world; Singapore has a large Muslim community, and the Middle East comprises a huge swathe of Western Asia. But even with Omnipork’s plant-based ingredients, getting a halal (or kosher) certification for Muslim (or Jewish) consumers requires some rebranding.

Impossible Foods claims there are 2.5 billion people around the world who can’t eat pork for religious reasons (including some Christian sects, like Seventh-Day Adventists), which would be a lucrative win for the first company to be able to widely cater to their dietary restrictions. The Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (Muis) — the Islamic Council of Singapore — oversees halal certification and consumption guidelines for the country’s Muslim community. When it comes to plant-based pork, Muis considers whether the ingredients are halal, and whether eating a product (such as mock pork) can create “undesirable social consequences… in this case, it may cause confusion for the Muslim public from the use of the name of a clearly prohibited food item under Muslim law.”

Pork is, after all, serious business in Islamic culture, and considered strictly haram (forbidden) — the word “pork” alone is a red flag to Muslims who might otherwise be interested in trying a halal mock pork product. “It’s a problem of association. The product itself may be plant-based and halal, but it becomes an issue when you call it ‘pork,’” said Abdullah Tarmugi, a retired Singaporean politician who served as Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs from 1993 to 2002. “When a Muslim consumes a plant-based product to resemble pork, then one might ask, is there a need for Muslims to want to get a taste of pork?” he explained. “So, it’s the association of the product with a forbidden animal that becomes an issue; not the product itself.”

Tarmugi, who is 75, concedes there might be a generational component to warming attitudes towards plant-based meat, but is open to giving it a shot. “Personally, I won’t have any problem eating it. To me, it’s the product that really counts, not what you call it.”

According to a Green Monday rep, Omnipork has gotten around this religious taboo by rebranding to Omnimeat — arguably a more palatable name for the exact same product — which has received halal certification. “The [certification] process took time, but it wasn’t particularly challenging, as at the end the product is purely plant-based,” said Yeung, who also added that Green Monday will be launching Omnimeat in the Middle East in Q2 2020.

Back home in Singapore, I went online and ordered a kilogram of Omnipork from a vegetarian food delivery service. It arrived in a thick sheet emblazoned with the name “Omnipaste” — something I hadn’t yet seen in any of Green Monday’s branding — which suggests that the company’s golden goose might be having a bit of an identity crisis as it finds its footing in a multicultural global market.

The raw “meat” resembled thick fish paste or fish meat used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisines — structurally less dense than real pork, but still malleable. There was no discernible halal certification on the package I received, despite confirming its certification with the company.

Photo: Alexis Ong

In the pan, it popped and sizzled just like real pork, and once safely ensconced in dumpling skins, the paste looked like real pork wonton fillings. But the fact remains that it’s still prohibitively expensive as a regular daily protein source — my single kilo of Omnipaste cost around $23 USD. When Impossible Pork finally launches, it’s hard to imagine it’ll be any cheaper.

It shouldn’t be a question of Impossible Pork or Omnipork, but rather, how to introduce more plant-based meat options and make them as accessible and affordable as possible.

As to whether Yeung views Impossible Pork as a threat to Omnimeat’s quiet growth across the region, he remains diplomatic about the future of plant-based foods. “Collectively, meat alternative brands and companies are striving to reduce people’s meat intake,” he explained. “People need lots of choices when it comes to food, more options only means more opportunities.” This makes sense considering that Yeung was an early investor in Beyond Meat, which he describes as a “pioneer” in the plant protein business. “I vividly remember the first time I tasted the beta version of Beyond Burger in their lab, and I knew right away that it would be a…game-changer,” he recalled. Green Monday does have designs on the US market, but won’t disclose details yet.

Whether Omnipork can conquer the United States, where mainstream palates are so decidedly different, remains to be seen. While American food culture has certainly diversified over the years, especially in major cities with strong Asian communities and enclaves, going meat-free seems like a daunting additional hurdle in the American cultural landscape. But it’s variety that will help to win over this extremely lucrative consumer market — a market historically defined by a wealth of different brands. It shouldn’t be a question of Impossible Pork or Omnipork, but rather, how to introduce more plant-based meat options and make them as accessible and affordable as possible.

Omnipork, while originally tailor-made to suit Asian recipes and Asian palates, could ultimately be used as a substitute for ground pork in any cuisine; as Omnimeat, it stands poised to take over a completely untapped base of halal and kosher customers. Plant-based pork, it seems, can be just as unifying as its animal-derived counterpart.

Original source: https://medium.com

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