Food and drink

It’s Cultural: Tracing the Faux Meat Trend Back to Buddhism

Fake meats have long catered to Buddhists, but with new food technologies, vegetarians eat better imitations than ever

You might have heard of and even tried products made by Beyond Meat, Just Eggs and Impossible Foods, all California-based companies that aim to use plants to mimic animal-derived foods – most prominently juicy hamburger patties. This new wave of food tech has been the biggest talk of the foodie scene in the past few months. At Green Monday, our Hong Kong start-up that focuses on sustainable living and includes Green Common shops, we’ve also developed Omnipork. Everyone who tries it is amazed by how real it seems.

In many Asian cultures, fake meats are a familiar concept, one associated with Buddhist practice. In Chinese, the word for vegetarian, or zhai, is associated with limiting what and when you eat for spiritual cleansing. But fake meats help people cheat; vegetarians who eat them are described as ‘zhai in the mouth but not in the heart’. Dishes commonly imitated with plant-based ingredients include sweet-and-sour pork, roast goose, sausage and chicken – you’ll easily find these at Hong Kong’s traditional Chinese vegetarian restaurants. They’re made with ingredients like soy, wheat gluten and shiitake mushroom stalks, and are designed to resemble meat in texture, form and taste. However, a lot of people do not consider this fake meat very appetising.

In recent years, more and more people around the world have been eschewing animal products, not for religious reasons but out of care for the environment, living creatures and their own health. But giving up our favourite foods is difficult. It’s not just about taste; eating is social, and foods are connected to our memories, emotions and cultural traditions.

Enter the new, hyper-realistic plant-based burger patties. These alternatives have made vegetarianism and veganism a less monastic choice. I’m a fan because these products can alleviate some of the difficulties people have in achieving their dietary goals. The new, trendy products even have more quality protein and iron than real meat, plus there’s no antibiotics, no cholesterol, no cruelty. It’s great for both vegetarians and omnivores.

People who take the plunge to go vegetarian or vegan need encouragement. It’s important to help them see how easy it is to adopt this lifestyle while getting enough nutrients. In this way, vegetarianism is about being kind to the planet and animals, while also being kind to people and building a community. 

David Yeung is founder of Green Monday, a social enterprise that promotes sustainable living. 

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