Food writer Laura Vincent (of Hungry and Frozen) ate 10 fake meats and graded them from best to worst so you don't have to. Consider this your handy guide to plant-based meat-eating.
It might just be the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon invoked by recently becoming vegan but it definitely seems there’s a steady succession of news stories about how New Zealanders are increasingly moving away from eating meat. Fortunately, we are in a singularly fecund time of knowledge, technology, and ingredient development, particularly when it comes to meat substitutes.
The concept itself is not new at all, but now you can get plant-based dupes of almost any former animal your tastebuds should desire. I’ve been vegan for eighteen months now, so naturally I am the foremost expert in this field.
My decision to go meat-free was initially fuelled by anxiety at environmental crises springing up whack-a-mole style, and wanting to lessen my impact in some way. As time passed, the plight of the animals themselves ended up becoming my primary concern, and the appeal of the concept of eating meat is now simply lost on me. I understand that you can eat meat, but I no longer remember the logic of why you would choose to if you had the means to avoid it. I used to adore my steak extra rare and ate so much butter that my family nearly had an intervention when I first gave it up. Yet every day, what I eat feels teeming with abundance rather than deprivation.
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That said, I can only speak to my own experiences - sweeping claims aren’t useful for individual needs and situations. I’m not going to climb onto your dinner table to drop-kick your lamb shank casserole at your head while lecturing you about what a terrible person you are, and how you should open your heart to lentils. I am, however, going to present you with some delightful options for meat substitutes. And that’s why I love them - not because I miss eating meat, but because they are so inherently delightful.
To behold a tray of supermarket chicken breasts only makes me sad that a chicken died to end up unseasoned and dry on someone’s plate. But a box of mock chicken, labelled “wild meaty chunks” - why, that’s entertaining! Saying “may I pass you the peas” at the dinner table, and then handing over that same mock chicken, because it’s made from peas? What fun! Actual chicken could never be so droll and delicious simultaneously - meat simply does not have the range.
Whether a long-term vegan or flutteringly soy-curious, there is absolutely something for you. This list is by no means complete, but a mere smattering of the numerous options out there, and I’ve tasted, reviewed, and graded them (gently, because I like to be encouraging, rather than mean) for your consideration.
Wu Chung Vegetarian Mock Duck
Pros: Gobsmackingly good - sinewy, succulent, and juicy with a gamey, muscular sumptuousness of flavour. I could happily consume this daily, and at $3.50 you frankly can’t afford not to eat it. You could probably hoodwink a person into thinking this is some kind of bird. Better yet, you could tell them honestly that it’s mock duck, clasp their hands, ignore their protests that they’re trying to eat in peace, and start an earnest, starry-eyed conversation about the wonders of eating plant-based food.
Cons: The sight of faux duck skin could be unsettling, but someone undeniably put considerable effort into making this look like it once quacked and I must salute their commitment.
Gardein Golden Fishless Filets
Pros: Impressive, with a flaky, tender filling and a light coating reminiscent of chip shop fried fish. They taste very gently of the sea, and are crying out to be clamped in a soft bread roll with tartare sauce. Food and memory are intertwined and can be powerfully emotive - for me, fish fingers, microwave pies and instant noodles bolstered my childhood eating, for you it might be something else completely. This isn’t about wistfully missing that meat, but instead missing a feeling - and I enjoyed the opportunity to wallow in culinary nostalgia here.
Cons: They do have a rather oily finish, which is helped by a squeeze of lemon. They’re also very expensive - I paid $12 for six small pieces. I ate each one as slowly and reverently as possible, but it still stung.
Whole Perfect Food Lamb Kebabs
Pros: These skewers have a fantastic texture - slightly chewy, yet yielding easily to the tooth. Underneath the spices there’s a definite lamb-evoking quality - a sweet, grass-fed richness. I thoroughly enjoyed them, and the price of $2.50 for 130g gave them extra piquancy.
Cons: I enjoyed their bold pepperiness, though it might be a little much for milder taste buds.
Vegie Delights Hot Dogs
Pros: You know what? These really do taste like hot dogs, with all of the birthday party flavour and none of the hog kneecaps and wood chips that likely pad out the real thing! They’d be ideal with tomato sauce, and perfect with a tasting flight of mustards.
Cons: The neither-here-nor-there spelling of “Vegie” in the title made me twitch a little (an ungodly hybrid of vege and veggie), but since I’m constantly playing fast and loose with grammar on Twitter for my own amusement, I can overlook it.
Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks
Pros: That label! Such lively phrasing! Wild! Meaty! Chunks! As well as bringing a smile to my face, this stuff is really delicious, a testament to the remarkable power of peas. It has a certain avian fibrousness and a wonderfully pronounced savoury taste. And it’s New Zealand made!
Cons: It’s worth noting that it tends to fall apart once cooked, despite the fillet appearance of it in the package. At $13 for 300g the price really holds me at arm’s length - I sincerely want to support local companies making vegan products, but this is still a lot of money for a small quantity of food.
Whole Perfect Foods Vegetarian Sauteed Chicken
Pros: This was better the second time I cooked it - sliced thinly and fried in a little oil over very high heat with garlic and spring onions. The individual slices rose up then deflated, and tasted excellent, with a good chewy bite.
Cons: The first time I roasted it whole in the oven, whereupon it swelled unexpectedly but magnificently to about three times its size. It had a bouncy, almost omelet-like feel and a pleasantly mild flavour, though I felt like there was something missing. As with most foods, you can’t go wrong with applying fierce direct heat to the maximum surface area - and lots of garlic.
Bean Supreme Hemp Burgers
Pros: These employ hemp seeds and protein as well as broccoli, spinach, kale, and green peas. If you are feeding someone - perhaps yourself - who requires vegetables to enter the room Trojan Horse-style, these could be the dinner for you. There’s an agreeable falafel buzz from the coriander, parsley and cumin.
Cons: They’re a little on the dry and grainy side, but it works with the falafel flavour. This isn’t the kind of hemp that will get you high, although in this economy you could always tell yourself it does, and hope that the placebo effect kicks in.
Everbest Veg Drumsticks
Pros: I am charmed that someone went to the effort to wrap soy around a stick to suggest a drumstick aesthetic.
Cons: There is a hint of deflated wet balloon to the texture, yet still I found myself compelled by them. I would recommend a marinade as there’s not an awful lot of baseline flavour to them - which perhaps means they are the most successful in imitating chicken.
Plant Powered Meals (M)eaty Italian (M)eatballs
Pros: The sauce was nicely seasoned and spiced, and tasted gratifyingly slow-simmered for the absolute zero effort I had to put in. Would naturally be ideal with spaghetti.
Cons: When I opened the package the balls had fallen apart entirely into the sauce. I was not mad - this used to happen to me sometimes, where I’d start off making meatballs and end up announcing loudly, to the empty room, “actually we’re having Bolognese tonight, as I intended the entire time.” But still! I cooked it anyway as it was, and while I was not entirely aflame with wonderment, I generally enjoyed this - there’s a workhorse competency to the flavour, if not the ability to remain in meatball form. The labelling is a little hectic syntactically, though I’m in no position to point fingers in that regard.
Bean Supreme Beetroot Burgers
Pros: With black beans, buckwheat, quinoa, and the titular beetroot, these are like little compressed discs of superfood. They are well-seasoned, calmly hold their shape in the pan and look good.
Cons: As with the hemp burgers by the same brand these had a particular dry, granular earthiness - unsurprising with those ingredients - but here it felt a little too present and I missed that sense of juiciness which other items I’ve reviewed provide. I don’t want to make it sound like I have a low bar for being impressed, but my notes for these did say “no weird aftertaste, which is nice!” I’m not ruling these burgers out, and paired with the right condiments they could likely come into their own. But I don’t hear swelling violin music when I think about them, as I do with the canned mock duck.