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THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Vegan restaurants are gaining popularity, but my Asian ‘chicken’ dish didn’t taste like chicken

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

“No meat. No dairy. No eggs. No honey. No product produced by animals.

I didn’t go vegan out of concern for the environment, a love of animals or my health. Those are all good reasons, to be sure, but not mine.

It was a granddaughter’s birthday and, God bless her, this march-to-a-different-drummer teenager is vegan. For her birthday, she wanted a family meal at a vegan Chinese restaurant in Houston.

I had no idea what to expect. This was my first visit to a vegan restaurant. I sure wasn’t anticipating a crowd for lunch on a Saturday afternoon, but, to my surprise, there was a line waiting for such delicacies as vegetable fried rice with vegan fish. Or vegan beef noodle soup. Or Kung Pao vegan chicken.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Had I been paying attention to food trends, I would have noticed that vegan diets are growing in popularity.

This is true even in Pearland. The land of Killen’s steakhouse, BBQ, burgers and Tex-Mex has more and more restaurant menus offering vegan options. There is even a new plant-based bakery.

Cinnaholic’s baked goods are 100 percent vegan, meaning they are animal-free and free of dairy, lactose, eggs and cholesterol.
The Pearland location is one of several planned for the Houston area.

Nationwide, only 1 percent of U.S. consumers claimed to be vegan in 2014, according to GlobalData. That number rose to 6 percent by 2017. And, according to GrubHub, the top takeaway marketplace in the U.S., users choose vegan food 19 percent more in the first half of 2017 than in the first half of 2016.

And Burger King has announced a rollout of the Impossible Whopper in nearly 7,300 locations by year’s end. The burger, a blend of soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil and bloodlike “heme” is produced by Impossible Foods.

Impossible’s biggest innovation has come from the use of heme, an iron-rich protein that the company believes is responsible for the distinctive taste of meat. Impossible found a way to cultivate heme from the roots of soybean plants and mass-produce it using yeast.

According to CNBC, Impossible Foods claims that more than 1,500 consumers have taken sensory tests in which they can’t tell the difference between a traditional meat burger and the Impossible Burger.

Impossible’s success has not been without controversy. A small but loud group of environmentalists, according to the New York Times, has said Impossible rushed its ingredients to market without adequate testing. And People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals slammed Impossible for testing its product on rats.

Cattle ranchers have also criticized Impossible for calling its product meat and have promoted legislation that would limit how Impossible and other alternative meat companies can market themselves.

More proof of the plant-based meat craze came early in May when Beyond Meat stunned Wall Street with a blockbuster IPO. Initially priced at $25 per share, trading opened at $46 and surged 163 percent by the end of the day.

Beyond Meat sells its plant-based burger, sausage and other products mostly at retail, though Carl’s Jr. and TGI Fridays now carry them. It doesn’t use heme.

But enough with the facts. “What did my vegan Chinese meal taste like?” you may ask.

I was the only one in our party not to order the buffet. They all liked it.

Being adventurous for a change, I ordered General Tso’s Vegan Chicken. You know how most people say “it tastes like chicken” when they try exotic meats? This didn’t. It didn’t taste bad, it was just no match for Original Recipe KFC.

Out of a sense of journalistic responsibility (and the fact my sweet tooth was acting up), I also tried Cinnaholic. I ordered a vegan cinnamon bun covered with a lemon spread and topped with blueberries. It was tasty. I may have helped save the planet, but I doubt it helped my waistline.

I think I am done with veganism for a while … at least until my granddaughter’s next birthday.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)