In a large, Chinese supermarket in Central London, packets of frozen mutton, crispy tiger prawns, and intestine line the freezer shelves. Head to the aisles, and you will find bright blue tins of duck, chicken, and abalone. Despite the names and convincing textures, not one of these products contains meat or fish.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that mock meats are a recent phenomenon, created to meet the demands of a rising vegetarian and vegan population. Vegetarian food company Quorn, which began selling meat substitute products in 1985, is currently enjoying its best annual sales in decades, on target to reach £760 million by 2027. Linda McCartney Foods, another prolific manufacturer of fake meat that launched in 1991, has seen similar success, with sales increasing by 20 percent between 2016 and 2017. Despite some criticism of the health risks associated with “ultra-processed” fake meats, the demand for soy mince, tempeh sausages, seitan burgers, and other meat substitutes looks set to continue its ascent.
With vegan products now stocked in almost every national supermarket, often alongside traditional meat products rather than banished to the back of the freezer section behind the hash browns, access to fake meat has never been so easy. But using gluten, tempeh (soybean), or tofu as a stand-in for flesh began long before the current wave of fake meat innovations, and far, far before the mass rise of mainstream vegan fake meat.
“People often think this fake meat is a contemporary, Western thing, but actually it's not, it's Chinese,” Fuchsia Dunlop, Chinese food expert and author Sichuan Cookery and Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China, tells me. “It's extraordinary—some of the Chinese vegetarian food—because it's so like what it is pretending to be.”
Indeed, the Chinese have really nailed mock meat. Find the right restaurant and this will be clear from one bite of “vegetarian crispy duck”—usually roasted and fried gluten served in a pancake with cucumber, spring onion, and hoisin sauce—or salt-and-pepper tofu, its delicate puffy centre hidden by a crisp, chicken-like skin. These enticing dishes are embedded in China’s long culinary history, in which socialising took place around the dinner table. According to Dunlop, there are records of meat substitutes dating back to the banquets of Medieval Asia. Medieval.
“There are records from the Tang dynasty, which is 618 to 907, of an official hosting a banquet serving imitation pork and mutton dishes made from vegetables,” explains Dunlop. “In the 13th century, which is one of the great periods of Chinese gastronomy and culinary development, there were restaurants in the southern Song dynasty capital, which is today's Hangzhou, where you could eat Buddhist vegetarian dishes.”
“They also had a tradition of all kinds of imitation dishes,” she adds. “So, not just vegetables pretending to be meat, but ingredients pretending to be other ingredients.”
Vegetarian cooking in China owes a lot to Chinese Buddhist monks, who have existed in the country since the late Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), after Indian missionaries brought the religion to this part of Asia. One key tenant of Buddhist ideology—alongside karmic retribution and worshipping the Buddha—is vegetarianism. Not wanting to break tradition when outsiders came to visit their monastery, China’s Buddhist monks would copy classic meat-based dishes, replacing the meat or fish with vegetables, tofu, or gluten.
“The imitation meat dishes are particularly associated with Buddhist monasteries,” Dunlop tells me. “Although monks themselves live on very simple vegetarian foods, they also have to entertain people from the outside, like patrons, potential benefactors, and visiting pilgrims.”
"People often think this fake meat is a contemporary, Western thing, but actually it's not, it's Chinese."
“A lot of these people would have been normally eating meat but they would eat vegetarian food when they went to a monastery,” she continues. “There are certain standards and patterns for what banquet should consist of and actually, they would serve a proper banquet, but all the grand meat and fish dishes would be made of vegetables.”
Chinese Buddhists aren’t the only ones to have experimented with vegetarian versions of meaty dishes. Throughout Chinese food history, less-affluent households have turned to tofu or gluten as a meat substitute when they couldn’t afford the real thing. Jade Rathore, co-founder of vegan Chinese supper club Phung Kay Vegan, tells me that her parents started a tofu business 30 years ago, shortly after they moved from China to the Midlands, for this exact reason.
“Growing up, meat and fish was a luxury,” explains Rathore over the phone. “My parents lived in a village in China, so having meat and fish was a rarity. Culturally, what they did then was make tofu, and as a family, we used to make it as an alternative back in Asia.”
“They'd have dehydrated tofu, which they'd call 'tofu skin,' and they'd use that in a stew for example,” she continues. “Tofu was very very much part of what we ate growing up, and the fact that it's such a versatile food, you could just create so many dishes from it.”
Dunlop agrees: “For a start, tofu is a very important protein food, not just for vegetarians, but traditionally people couldn't afford to eat that much meat, so tofu was eaten by everyone. So that's one of the main ingredients for vegetarian foods, and gluten, because it's another protein food, which is very useful for vegetarians.”
At Phung Kay Vegan supper clubs, Rathore and her business partner Angie Li use fake meat made from ingredients like konjac—an Asian plant with an edible stem—or soy protein to create vegan prawn har gow and black pepper mince bao.
“A lot of the mock meat that we use, and a lot of what other traders use in the UK, is manufactured in Asia because there's a such a big movement out there,” explains Rathore. “Culturally, religiously, especially in Buddhist China, they wouldn't eat meat, so they’d find alternatives.”
China’s innovation in mock meat will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever wandered the aisles of an Asian supermarket, searching desperately for black rice vinegar or a tin of bamboo shoots. Alongside the fresh meat counters and tanks of live crabs, SeeWoo supermarket in London’s Chinatown stocks a wide variety of vegetarian meat products, from frozen mock seafood wrapped in crispy pastry to imitate prawns, to smoked, silken, and fermented tofu. Wing-Ki To, executive assistant to the retail director at SeeWoo, gives me an idea of how vast the selection is.
“For ambient products, we have the mock duck, mock chicken, and mock abalone,” she tells me, after we squeeze past the vast eel tanks to an office room above the supermarket. “For our frozen products, we have several—chicken, squid, prawn, lamb, beef, pork.”
“Gluten tends to be the main ingredient, but a lot of the frozen products tend to be made of soybean,” she adds. “We do stock a lot, and in my opinion over the recent years where veganism and vegetarianism have risen, it has impacted our sales.”
While tofu, vegetables pretending to be meat, and gluten are slightly easier to trace back in Chinese history, 20th-century mass-produced products (such as SeeWood’s mysterious yet enticing tiger prawn made from bean curd and vegetables) are harder to date. These products are obviously not the kind of thing that was served in seventh-century China, and yet are clearly the result of a long history of creative, vegetarian gastronomy.
“Meat is the centre of hospitality and ritual,” Dunlop tells me, “but at the same time, it's a very sophisticated food culture so you have all these different experimental things going on with food with changing the shape and appearance.”
“There are a whole lot of manufactured things like proteins made from various beans and konjac—things that look like shrimp, that are jelly-like proteins moulded into the shape of shrimps,” she adds. “You can also get slices of pork made of vegetable protein.”
Despite these more “processed” options, many vegetarian dishes in China still utilise historic techniques to create vegetarian dishes.
“There are very popular dishes in the Jiangnan region around Shanghai, called roast goose and roast duck,” explains Dunlop, “and they are made from very thin layers of tofu skin which are bathed in a delicious seasoning liquid made from thing from Shaoxing wine, sugar, and soy sauce, and they're rolled up and steamed then deep-fried. The end result has a golden crisp skin that looks rather like roast duck or goose, and gives it a consistency quite like meat.”
Which I have to admit, sounds a lot better than a Quorn sausage.