Meat free: Faking it

Gasometer Hotel chef Rhys Davies with his vegan chilli bean and steak nachos.
Gasometer Hotel chef Rhys Davies with his vegan chilli bean and steak nachos. Photo: Eddie Jim

Vincent Ng's ducks look like ducks. But do they swim or quack like a duck? Never. Yet their look and texture, even their taste, are so realistic that confusion could be excused.

So, too, his fish-shaped vegetarian fish, chicken nuggets and ham. These are just some of 400 mock-meat lines sold by Footscray-based Vincent Vegetarian Food, Ng's import, wholesale and retail operation. It supplies many of the vegetarian versions of popular ''meat'' and ''fish'' dishes found in Victorian vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

From vegetarian mutton chunks to chicken wings, tuna, hot dogs, prawns, even tripe and kidneys, with alarmingly realistic illustrations, his products are fashioned from vegetable protein, including soya and gluten.

Sourced from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, their reach is extending beyond mock meat restaurants and Asian food shops into mainstream supermarkets, including IGA, cafes and restaurants. From veggie sausages in vegetarian big breakfasts to pizza shops and pubs, mock meats feature on a growing number of menus.

The Eat Pizza chain has pizzas made with vegan cheese, vegan salami and vegan ham on its gourmet list. ''Customers requested it and also I realised that people want healthier options,'' founder Aydin Babayigit says. ''It's definitely a growth market, [with] a huge following and they are very appreciative.

''Pizza is classified as fast food and junk food, and we are trying to reverse that. We do do a fair bit of volume on the vegan products and it is becoming more and more popular.''

Importer Vincent Ng of Vincent Vegetarian Food, Footscray.
Importer Vincent Ng of Vincent Vegetarian Food, Footscray. Photo: Eddie Jim

He uses Redwood products from Britain - there are cheaper alternatives, but customers appreciate quality, Babayigit says.

Lord of the Fries is a Melbourne success story, its seven-store vegan fast-food chain featuring in tourist guides. Co-founder Sam Koronczyk agrees many of those enjoying its mock-meat burgers and nuggets - mostly soy-based - may not realise they are vegan.

But, he says, ''I think a lot of people who are meat eaters think that it is a good thing and it is good to have less meat in their diet, but they don't really want to compromise on the taste and texture that goes with meat. So I think that's why our brand appeals to them and why there are more mock-meat suppliers around the place.''

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At Brunswick's Cornish Arms, parmigiana chicken burgers and ''fish'' and chips are on the menu, while at Collingwood's Gasometer Hotel owner Kody Abrams always offers vegan options - as a vegan for 14 years he remembers the frustration of having no choices.

The Gasometer's vegan nachos, southern fried chicken burger, chicken and waffles, and barbecue ribs are made from gluten-based seitan, made in-house then flavoured.

Ng says his manufacturers use Chinese herbs and spices to mimic meat's look and taste, avoiding a high chemical content because customers are health conscious.

But consultant dietitian Karen Inge warns mock meats differ - customers should read the nutrition panel. ''Not all of them are super healthy,'' she says.

Some buy for ethical reasons, but those who think they are eating healthier should beware of the levels of salt and saturated fat. ''Many of the products that are available are quite high in sodium because it gives it the flavour,'' she says, mentioning mock ham, salami and bacon.

Inge says Quorn, a mycoprotein from the mushroom family, is high-quality protein, while most mock meats are made from wheat gluten or soy. But while soy-based products are a good source of iron, it is not as readily absorbed as from meat, so vitamin C is needed to aid absorption.

Ng, a vegetarian for 30 years, says meat-eating Westerners increasingly want his food. ''There are some people, they are non-vegetarian people, but because of their health condition they like to eat less meat,'' he says.

Coles researched buyers of its three meat-alternative ranges - Frys, Sanitarium and Quorn - and found ''around 60 per cent of customers buying these products are doing so because they are vegetarian and around 30 per cent are what we call meat reducers,'' Coles spokesman Jon Church says.

''Sales of meat alternatives have increased over the last two years with double-digit growth in the category.''

Meat sales are also up, he says.

''Recent industry data suggests that, among meat eaters seeking to eat less meat, 68 per cent do so because they believe it will make them healthier, compared with just 15 per cent who do it for ethical reasons.''

In Britain, fear of mad cow disease led many to abandon meat, and the rock star name, plus a quality product, boosted the Linda McCartney mock-meat business. Products available here include sausages and highly sought-after sausage rolls, two burgers, mince and pies.

''We have got some really good sales in all 11 Thomas Dux stores in Sydney and Melbourne,'' says Adrian O'Connor, sales manager of distributor Trialia Foods. It has imported the Linda McCartney range for two years and brings in Tivall mock meats from Israel, also selling into Leos, Maxi Foods, FoodWorks and IGA supermarkets.

''A lot of people that I have spoken to are not vegetarian but use it anyway because they like the product, especially the sausage rolls.''

O'Connor, whose 18-year-old son is vegetarian, says Trialia's vegetarian and vegan products are often bought to accommodate one member of the family, but eaten by all. During tastings, non-vegetarians try and buy. ''It is certainly becoming more mainstream,'' he says.

His company is often asked what it has for vegans. And while Australia is not tainted by the European horse meat scandal, the publicity prompted more people to think about what they were eating.

For Sam Habib, mock meat has been a growing market at his Flinders Street Habib Wholefoods since opening in 2008. Young, health-conscious professionals are willing to pay for quality imported products, including Linda McCartney, Redwood and Quorn, he says.

Farewell to the flesh

Meat Free Week (March 18-24) is a new online-based campaign to encourage less meat consumption in Australia and to provoke discussion about the treatment of animals bred for meat. More than 1350 Australians have signed up, meaning they'll be going meat- free this week to raise donations for non-profit animal protection think tank Voiceless. Seventy per cent of funds raised will go to Voiceless and the remaining 30 per cent will go to organisers Ethical Eats Limited for future Meat Free Week events.

More information: meatfreeweek.com