Not Impossible: China’s rich vegan meat culture goes back 1,000 years

Jun 15, 2020

Brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat may dominate the market, but imitation meat has been around for centuries and is a core part of Buddhism in China.

Plant-based faux meat products are in vogue these days. Brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have taken over the vegetarian market with their realistic vegan “beef” patties.

But imitation meat has been around for centuries, especially in Chinese cuisine. Think “fish” fillets made with seaweed and “chicken” cubes bathed in sweet and spicy sauce.

These dishes are staples of Buddhist monasteries throughout China, where imitation meat was conceived by monks and nuns who long abided by a vegetarian diet. Most of the fake meat was made with tofu.

“Imitation meat can serve as a kind of a substitute in the practitioner's transitional period from non-vegetarian to vegetarian,” says Pu Chengzhong, an assistant professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Hong Kong. “It was created for visitors of China’s monasteries and for transitioning monks.”

Lily Ng’s family has been selling imitation meat in New York for nearly three decades.

Her mother started May Vegetarian Market after she struggled to find the kind of fake meat she grew up eating in Taiwan as a practicing Buddhist.

“Whenever she was in Taiwan, she always had delicious vegetarian food.”

Lily Ng

“Whenever she was in Taiwan, she always had delicious vegetarian food,” Ng says, “whether it was tofu or mock meat. And when she immigrated here 40 years ago, there was nothing, so she decided to bring everything over.”

The Ngs now sell their own line of faux meat products including spare ribs, chicken, and fish.

One thing that makes Chinese vegetarian food stand out from other meat alternatives is their lack of allium plants.

(Read more: Chinese bitter melon: What is it, and how do you cook with it?)

Allium is a genus of plants that includes onions, garlic, scallions, shallots, leeks, and chives. They aren’t used because their flavors are said to excite the senses, which runs against the tenets of Buddhism.

“Buddhist followers need to be content with little and not be greedy,” Pu says.

What started as a byproduct of Buddhist beliefs has today made its way into the mainstream.

Last year, Burger King teamed up with Impossible Foods to create a vegan version of its famous Whopper. Vegan nuggets have joined the menu at KFC, part of a collaboration with Beyond Meat.

The fake meat craze has also led to the emergence of companies in Asia that promise vegan options catered to local tastes.

Hong Kong-based Omnipork seeks to appeal to Chinese consumers with its faux pork. While fake beef patties have been the major focus of Western companies, in China, pork is the most-consumed protein.

A bowl of instant noodles made with Omnipork's fake luncheon meat.
A bowl of instant noodles made with Omnipork's fake luncheon meat. / Photo: K.Y. Cheng/SCMP

“In our case, the pork can be used in dumplings as stuffing, as dim sum, or as minced meat on top of a lot of things,” says Omnipork founder David Yeung. “Of course, you can also turn it into a meatball or meat patty.”

The meat is also made sans allium vegetables, in keeping with Buddhist tenets.

“Traditionally, many people who are vegetarian are because of religious reasons,” Yeung says. “Now, what these cutting-edge food companies are doing is that they are targeting the meat eaters.”

Faux meat has come a long way from its Buddhist temple origins. With tech companies joining the field, one day soon, fake meat could be indistinguishable from the real thing.

Chinese traditionsExplainer


Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Nathaniel Brown and Hanley Chu

Editor: Hanley Chu and Joel Roche

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Victor Peña