Sunday, September 14, 2014

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Meat Substitutes

     Even occasional readers of this blog know that I’m a decided omnivore—recent posts have included pieces about me dining on rabbits, and pythons, for example, which are clearly not species of fruit or vegetables.  But, as always, I wanted to give the other side a try, and see for myself what some different foods taste like.  Obviously, for some people avoiding certain species of animal for food, or all animals, is the norm.  (And vegans take this a step further by refusing all animal products, such as dairy or eggs, and fruitarians take it even more extremely by refusing to eat any plant parts, save for fruit, seeds, and nuts, and stricter fruitarians won’t even consume these unless they’ve fallen to the ground on their own (i.e., they won’t pick them off the branch or stem.))  But here in the U.S., the average person does eat meat, so calling vegetarian substitutes “exotic” is, I think, fair.  However, please don’t take this post as a mockery of vegetarianism.  Even though I clearly don’t agree with their philosophy, I can understand their reasons, and respect their principles.  (And their commitment.  I can recall a coworker of mine (Hi Rob!) who years ago tried to be vegan in rural Tennessee/Kentucky/Virginia (the Cumberland Cap area).  If he hadn’t broken down and eaten dairy and eggs I think he would have starved to death.)
     I’ve had, and still have, many vegetarian/vegan friends over the years, and in hanging out with them I’ve tried several meat substitutes.  The best, by far, was the taro-based “moctopus” I had in a Manhattan restaurant (perhaps Vegetarian Paradise?) quite a while ago (see November 25, 2012 post for more information).  I can remember thinking that a couple of gardenburgers were okay, but that the “not dogs” were terrible, very artificial and plastic-y tasting.  But I wanted to reacquaint myself with meat substitutes.  Fortunately, I’m currently near a Whole Foods grocery, which is renowned for its organic and vegetarian friendly selection.  So I was able to get a pretty fair variety.
     There’s a wide range of products used for meat substitutes.  The king, of course, is the soy bean, as the tofu made from it can be shaped and molded into approximately pretty much any type of meat.  Funguses are also used, particularly Fistalina hepatica, and Lactiporus (which is thought by some to be a good chicken imitator).  A Glenmorgan sausage (made from cheese, leeks, and bread crumbs) is fairly old, dating back to at least the mid 19th century.  “Mock duck” is derived from wheat gluten, oil, sugar, soy sauce, and salt.  Quorn comes from a mix of soil molds and eggs.  Other substitutes are still being developed, and perfected.  Leaf protein concentrate is one of these.  The other, more dramatic example, is the “in vitro meat” (a.k.a. “shmeat”), which is basically test tube animal flesh, tissue grown in a lab that has never been part of an animal.  This invention, which requires fetal calf serum cells, and stem cells, has long been a staple of science fiction stories, but seems to be a realistic option for the future.  Some vegetarians balk at it, since it uses the fetal calf cells, while others embrace it.  (Religious dietary lawmakers are divided on the concept as well.)  An in vitro burger was made in 2013, and taste tested.  It was pronounced as being more meat-like than any other substitute, but still somewhat lacking.  (In vitro meat doesn’t, at this time anyway, yield fat or bone tissue, so the flavor that these add is impossible to recreate.)  In vitro meat is still absurdly expensive at this time, but perhaps in the (near?) future it will be a viable, if weird, dining option.
     But let’s get to the food itself.  As I often do, I’ll grade these using the U.S. scholastic system, which is F for failing, D for barely passing, C for average, B for good, A for excellent, with pluses and minuses as required.
1)      Sol Cuisine Sprouted Quinoa Chia Sliders with sweet potato.  Vegan, uses non-GMO’s, and is wheat and gluten free.  Made from quinoa (See May 1, 2014 Superfoods post), sweet potato, sunflower oil, brown rice, chia, onions, and assorted spices:  C-.  Appeared as a light brown hamburger patty, with visible plant chunks.  It was okay, not great.  Edible, certainly, but didn’t dazzle.  Didn’t taste like beef, and the texture wasn’t meat-like.
2)      Engine 2 Poblano Black Bean Plant Burger.  Gluten free, non-GMO’s.  Made from black beans, brown rice, tomatoes, oats, poblano peppers, pumpkin seed, cilantro, and spices:  C.  Brown patty with visible bean and pepper chunks.  Better than Sol sliders, but still just alright.  Didn’t chew or taste like beef.  Very bean-y, as advertised.
3)      Go Veggie! Pepper Jack pasteurized process cheese food alternative.  No lactose, soy, or gluten.  Product of skim milk protein (casein), canola oil, rice, jalapeno and bell peppers, carageenan, and vitamins.  Not really a meat substitute, admittedly, but you get the point:  C-.  Looks like cheese, and texture is about right, but the resemblance ends there.  Doesn’t taste like cheese.  Way too mild, even with the peppers.  Average at best.
4)      Tofurky Peppered.  Vegan.  Made of wheat gluten, tofu, soy sauce, canola oil, corn starch, pepper, white and garbonzo beans, lemon juice, onion, celery:  F.  Was brown deli slices.  Tasted gross and nasty.  Very plastic-y.  Not like turkey at all.
5)      Lightlife Smart Deli Bologna Style Veggie Protein Slices.  Vegan.  Produced from wheat gluten, soy protein, cane syrup, carageenan, rice flour, spices:  D.  Looked similar to bologna, only a slightly darker color.  Tasted roughly bologna-ish, but had unpleasant undertaste.  Sticky and pasty.  Pretty bad.
6)      Tofurky Chorizo Style.  Vegan, non GMO.  From soy flour, canola oil, apple cider vinegar, spices, etc.  Billed as being for quesadillas or tacos.  Heated this one up, in a microwave, as my hotel had this at least:  D-.  Looked like shredded chorizo, I guess.  Marginally better than Tofurky Pepper, but not much.  Hidden, but definite plastic-y taste under the spice.  It tasted “off” somehow.  I just rewatched David Cronenburg’s 1986 movie remake of “The Fly” and it reminded me of the scene where Geena Davis’s character tries steak that has been teleported, before Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character fixes his machine.  She’s grossed out, and claims it tastes artifical.
7)      Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Toona.  Vegan, gluten and soy free, non-GMO.  Made of pea protein, olive oil, potato starch, seaweed powder, agave nectar, apple cider vinegar, konjac powder, ginger, and salt:  D-.  This one was bizarre.  Evidently they weren’t even trying to look like tuna, but the result looked a lot like ground beef.  It had more of a beefish flavor, too, and not like tuna at all.  But, to be a broken record, this had an underlying, nasty, plastic-y quality that totally ruined it.

     So there we go.  As you can read, I wasn’t impressed by any of them.  Even the best of the bunch, the Engine 2 burger, was only okay.  I’d still probably try different meat substitutes, but I won’t be optimistic about the chances that I’ll like them much, if at all.  Now I did enjoy the moctopus, so maybe a vegetarian restaurant could prepare something I think is tasty.  And admittedly, I was sampling non-fresh, store bought, pre-packaged meat substitute examples.  But in the unlikely event that I ever become a vegetarian or vegan, I think I’ll stick with regular fruits and vegetables.  These meat substitutes seem mostly to be a cruel tease, as they initially approximate a type of meat, but ultimately, are missing something vital.
     I do, though, appreciate many of the meat substitute names.  Moctopus, tofurky, and “not dogs”, etc. amuse me.  But I think my favorite is the simple, yet funnily effective, “facon.”


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