All signs indicate that global vegetarianism is on the rise. Increasing concern for personal nutrition and health, reducing one’s carbon footprint and protecting animal welfare has caused more and more people across the world to part ways with – or at least cut down on – the meat-based diet modern humans have grown to depend on.
The developments carry profound ramifications for the colossal global meat industry, as well as for innovative and ambitious new entrants seeking to supplant it. One study indicates that the global market for vegan products totaled $11.1 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach as high as $35.5 billion by 2027.
China, with its 1.4 billion people, accounting for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, could play a vital role in coming generations’ widespread dietary transition. Estimates of the country’s current rate of vegetarianism, however, show that it is slightly behind the global curve.
While reliable data on the subject remains sparse, one report by Public Radio International, cited by Xinhua, predicted that the total number of Chinese vegetarians exceeded 50 million in 2014, accounting for less than 4% of the country’s population at the time. This stands in contrast to some of its neighbors, such as Japan, where the rate hovers around 9%, and India, where commonly held Hindu religious beliefs regulating personal meat consumption result in a national vegetarianism rate of at least 20%.
Despite these numbers, China has a deeply rooted connection to plant-based meat alternatives. A 2018 article by The Economist’s 1843 magazine delves into this history, reminding global readers:
“In the time of the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), an official hosted a banquet at which he served convincing replicas of pork and mutton dishes made from vegetables; in the 13th century, diners in the capital of the southern Song dynasty (Lin’an, now Hangzhou), had a wide choice of meat-free restaurants, including those that specialized in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.”
Buddhism serves as the primary motivation for many of the country’s die-hard vegetarians, cultivating a robust sub-cuisine within the Chinese culinary universe. Meanwhile, a majority of China’s most iconic dishes, especially in a global context, include meat as a key ingredient: pork/shrimp dumplings, Peking duck, kung pao chicken, and even mapo tofu, which is made with ground pork or beef.
One monumental challenge for contemporary Chinese entrepreneurs seeking to latch on to recent dietary shifts is to successfully create a product capable of convincing consumers to accept fiddling with traditional ingredients in a nation proud of its rich culinary heritage.
The startup model: Vesta’s mission for the perfect plant-based dumplings
Vesta is one firm seeking to bridge the gap between the recent wave of plant-based meat startups – many of them western, including Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat – and the common Chinese consumer.
“Generally, it’s easier to fry anything – the requirements are lower,” said Zihan Xie, the firm’s Founder and CEO, in recent interview with Pandaily. “If you deep fry anything, it’s going to taste good. It’s more difficult to present dishes’ original flavor,” through cooking methods like steaming or boiling.
Headquartered in Beijing, Vesta specializes in the production of plant-based meat alternatives for the domestic market. It operates primarily through a business-to-business model whereby it supplies local restaurants with ingredients. One of the most common dishes targeted by plant-based meat companies like Vesta is the hamburger, due to its near universal appeal and the strongly-flavored accompaniments and sauces that disguise the taste of fake meat.
However, Vesta understands that the key to the vast and competitive Chinese market is not the hamburger. To achieve mainstream success, the company is on an ambitious quest to meet domestic consumers on their own terms, starting with an iconic national dish – dumplings.
“It’s not quite SpaceX, but it’s still very difficult!” quipped Xie.
As the head of the startup, Xie brings a sharp business mindset and entrepreneurial spirit honed by years of experience in venture capital and cryptocurrency-related ventures. However, developing a recipe for the perfect dumpling that uses non-traditional meat alternatives as the core ingredient poses a challenge all of its own.
A self-professed foodie, Vesta’s founder has assembled a team of professionals including food engineers and renowned chefs to carry out the firm’s mission.
Pandaily recently had the opportunity to sample two types of dumplings developed by the Vesta team. The selection included two classic Chinese versions using the firm’s own plant-based protein: one with a “pork” and celery filling, and another with corn. The taste and texture of the products were found to closely resemble that of typical dumplings found in neighborhood joints dotted far and wide across China.
For Vesta, the more pressing matter now is a conventional business task: cutting costs and expanding production. In the near future, the company plans to begin exporting to other countries in East Asia, and to increase its manufacturing capacity to a couple tons per day – a fivefold increase from current levels – as early as next quarter.
Ultimately, Xie contends, Vesta’s path to victory is a straightforward one: Provide customers with “delicious yet cheap options,” regardless of whether they contain real meat or not, and the firm will succeed.
The restaurant model: Bestease vegetarian Lanzhou beef noodles
Taking a completely different approach is “Bestease” (百易). This all-vegan restaurant chain based in Beijing is seeking to replicate one of the most ubiquitous and well-loved types of restaurants found in nearly every town and city across China.
A staple of northwestern Gansu province and its capital city Lanzhou, the local noodle recipe has been handed down through generations and generations of the Hui Muslim regional minority. Hand-stretched noodles, or lamian (拉面), are presented in a clear meat broth, and are typically topped with pieces of stewed or braised beef.
With increased mobility and rapid urbanization taking place in China during recent decades, migrants from the arid northwestern region have now settled far and wide across the country, firmly establishing Lanzhou beef noodles as a national favorite, from Harbin to Guangzhou.
Messing with such a time-honored recipe may seem like a gutsy move, but that’s exactly what Bestease is aiming to do.
According to the company’s official introduction, its founder ‘Mr. He’ felt dismayed that vegetarian visitors to Lanzhou found themselves unable to share in the enjoyment of renowned local delicacies like beef noodles. “They could only look through the window and return home with regret,” says the company.
Following an extensive period of “research and development,” during which Mr. He crisscrossed the country in search of the perfect ingredients, the company’s first location was established in 2016 at Beijing’s Yuanda Metropolitan Park. The broth features “wild matsutake mushrooms, organic soybean sprouts, fresh corn, fresh radish, fresh ginger, small celery and other raw materials,” purportedly offering high nutritional and medicinal value.
In addition to beef noodles, Bestease has also worked to develop plant-based iterations of classic regional fare, ranging from simple fried eggs using alternative protein to skewered mushrooms, intended to resemble barbequed lamb.
It is unlikely that Bestease will be able to bring its meat-free Lanzhou beef noodles, or any of its other alternative dishes, into the national mainstream. But as dietary trends progress in China, consumers seeking to reduce their personal meat intake have more and more places to turn. Whether by visiting local restaurants specializing in vegan takes on the classics, or by picking up a package of frozen plant-based meat dumplings at the supermarket, the next generation of Chinese consumers will be closer than ever to a less meat-dependent future.