Vegetarianism in India is not a binary concept. The practice of eating or completely avoiding meat lies on a spectrum. A viral food meme aptly reflects this fascinating meat-eating culture with a list titled “9 types of vegetarians in India”: pure vegetarian, vegan, can eat egg but not chicken, can eat gravy but not meat, eats non-veg only while drinking, pure vegetarian on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but eats anything on weekends, can only eat non-veg outside the house, not inside, among others. There is a word to describe those whose food practices are depicted here. They are called flexitarians.
Mock meat with a side of mutton
Flexitarians, it seems, are driving the demand for mock meats in India. “About two-thirds of our customers are non-vegetarians and 40% are repeat visitors,” says Abhinav Sinha, CEO of GoodDO. This quick service restaurant chain, which started its journey with a food truck in Udaipur, where it’s headquartered, now has six cafés and kiosks in Mumbai. The food truck was launched as an experiential space for its parent company, GoodDot, considered the leader in India’s mock meat food industry. It offers products like mock meat achari tikka, biryani and meaty bites which can be added to salads, gravies and even used as stuffing for momos. GoodDO’s crispy burger was recognized as the best vegan burger in India by animal rights organization PETA India last year. Stuffed with crispy vegan nuggets that mimic the texture and taste of chicken nuggets, it’s a hit with non-vegetarians too, says Sinha.
Mock meats are not restricted to mutton and chicken. Evo Foods, a startup dealing in plant-based substitutes for animal products, is launching a vegan egg this year. It is in liquid form, lab-produced with moong dal and beans, that can make an omelette or a scrambled egg. “If someone is buying free-range eggs, it means, along with making a wiser dietary choice, they are concerned about animal welfare. We believe Evo eggs will appeal to them because this product is vegan, contains no cholesterol, no trans fat and the taste and nutritional content are the same as a real egg,” says Shraddha Bhansali, CEO, Evo Foods.
She is the founder of the vegetarian restaurant Candy & Green in the upscale Breach Candy neighbourhood in south Mumbai. Pre-lockdown, she would have a lot of non-vegetarian diners walking in for lunch. They would perhaps enjoy the mock meat balls with spaghetti and then have chicken for dinner without any guilt, she says, adding: “Eating too much non-vegetarian is often associated with guilt. But if you get the option to eat vegetarian that tastes exactly like mutton or chicken, chances are you will go for it and even incorporate it in your regular meals without turning vegetarian or vegan.”
Along with restaurants and ready-to-cook products, cloud kitchens are also stepping into the mock meat industry, bolstered by funding. Financial services group Ashika Capital’s initiative, Future Bets, invests in industries like Artificial Intelligence and alternative proteins. “We are in talks with the cloud kitchen leader Rebel Foods to introduce plant-based protein options,” says Mihir Mehta, senior vice-president, Ashika Capital. He believes the industry has a bright future, with plant-based products made with ingredients like soy, cauliflower and coconut.
Recently, the mock meat industry was abuzz with celebrity news. Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh, both vegans, announced their business venture Imagine Meats, a plant-based meat company with substitutes for chicken and mutton, in July. Riteish has confessed, in several interviews, that he was a “hard-core” meat eater before turning vegetarian and plant-based meat alternatives, with their taste, texture and smell, fulfil non-vegetarian cravings for people like him.
Apart from the taste factor, health concerns top the list of reasons that drive the consumption of mock meat. A 2019 Mint article, Giving Up Meat For Peak Performance, features Virat Kohli and Sunil Chhetri, who adopted a plant-based diet to boost their health. The article says this diet change made Chhetri feel lighter on the field, while Kohli’s body was getting too acidic owing to meat consumption. With athletes like these in the news for their dietary choices, there is bound to be a trickle-down effect. “Since last year, we started getting requests for vegan foods,” says chef David Raj, director, culinary development and innovation, at Elior India, which offers catering services for corporate cafeterias and banquets. Before the lockdown, they arranged food for an event at Mumbai’s Godrej India Culture Lab with mock meat liver and vegan cheese on the menu. GoodDO’s Sinha says this demand is driven by the belief that too much non-vegetarian is detrimental to health—“Let’s say you have high cholesterol, but you crave heavy meats. Now, you have the option of plant-based mutton.”
This, combined with the awareness of meat, especially chicken and livestock, being pumped with antibiotics is spurring the growth of mock meat brands such as Good Dot, Vezlay, Urban Platter and Veggie champ. A 2018 Mint article, Govt May Ban Antibiotic Colistin Used To Fatten Chicken, points out how antibiotic resistance in humans also stems from the consumption of such meats.
The need right now, then, is for better meat. While there are options such as free-range chicken believed to be free of antibiotics, plant-based non-vegetarian alternatives are perceived as “better meats”.
Consumption of non-vegetarian food is bad for the environmental, claim the brands driving demand for mock meats. This is debatable. The mock meat industry in India is niche— and there are no conclusive studies to prove that a dietary change to these products will benefit the environment. Consider this: If soya, an essential ingredient in mock meats, is cultivated indiscriminately, what will it do to our soil and water? Whether it is meat or soya, unchecked industrial production will play havoc with limited natural resources.
In tradition-bound India, where food choices are shaped by seasonality, ecology and culture, plant-based protein is at the intersection of alternative ingredients, health consciousness and environmental concerns. Whether mock meats will completely replace non-vegetarian or will coexist with mutton biryanis will be determined by what works best for you.