January 24, 2020

Can next-gen fake meat become a hit in China?

At a time when China’s economic progress has meant more disposable income, the country’s population now tops the world for meat consumption. But with our uncertain resource future, the rise of meat analogues is continuing to gain momentum. Is there room for fake meats in China (and frankly globally)despite its traditionally pork-loving culture?

Fake meats new and old

While the debate on the health aspects of meat consumption rages on, there is less question about the large impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions Together, these two major factors form the drive to reduce the consumption of meat — real meat that is. Enter meat analogues or “fake” meats. These substitutes are actually nothing new, and have existed for centuries, especially to abide by the dietary laws of different religions, but are taking on new meaning in the 21st century:

  • Tofu: made from soybeans and likely the most widely known meat substitute
  • Tempeh: traditional Indonesian soy product made from the fermented beans and pressed into cake form.
  • Wheat Gluten: use to make most of the fake meats (such as duck and bbq pork) derived from the Chinese Buddhist culinary tradition. Also called seitan.
  • Almonds: Used as a meat and dairy substitute, especially during Lent in Medieval Europe.

As for the comparatively new kids on the block, different companies use different proteins and methods to produce their meat:

  • Beyond Meat: uses proteins from peas, mung bean and rice.
  • Impossible Foods: uses a genetically modified soy molecule called heme
  • Quorn: the UK-based company uses fungal protein with egg albumen as a binder.
  • Zhenmeat: the Beijing-based startup uses 3D printers to produce products that contain elements like bones, which Chinese are used to eating the meat off of.
  • Green Monday: Based in Hong Kong, its breakout ground meat product, OmniPork, uses shiitake mushroom, peas, rice and non-GMO soy.
  • Whole Perfect Food: Founded in 1993 in Shenzhen, the manufacturer of over 300 products uses different methods for different products, such as extracting seaweed protein for vegan seafood.

While the historical meat analogues were created for vegetarians and vegans, they and newer analogues are hoping to sway hardline carnivores and omnivores alike with the promise of the same taste or tastier, better nutrition and the chance to help the planet.

Breaking into the Chinese market

A New York Times article by David Yaffe-Bellany outlines the efforts of American companies Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that want to break into the Chinese market. they have a few hurdles to overcome:

  • Regulations: there’s a spiderweb of regulatory bodies to get through before it can even be approved.
  • Culture: even though meat-free Buddhist cuisine is thought to to have originated in China, the culture still largely favors tradition and the status associated with meat consumption. This consumption (especially pork) is expected to rise in the next six years.
  • Local Competition: there are already China-based fake meat companies that are ahead of the game in terms of being integrated and localized for that market.

Like all companies trying to enter a tough market, those two will likely have to make serious adjustments to the game plan to integrate successfully.

The KFC Case Study

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to repeat the failures of many US brands in China. For one, KFC had to largely abandon its US model before becoming a the most popular US fast food chain in China:

  • Larger stores: where KFCs in the US favored take out, those in China were doubled in size to welcome groups, extended families and longer stays.
  • Larger menus: the larger menus and rotation of season items are meant to aggressively cater to local tastes (which also required hiring more food prep staff).
  • Smaller cities: Instead of competing with McDonald’s in the largest cities, KFC opted to for the ones with smaller populations where the incomes were rising and the brand’s appeal would still be novel.

In short, success did follow this particular brand, but it meant extensive localization along with a strong business strategy.

The Takeaway

While at least one fast food company managed to find a way to sell fried chicken to a culture that already consumes chicken, it’s going to be a far greater challenge of selling fake meat to an unabashedly carnivorous population. Not unlike the prosperity (and subsequent rise in meat consumption) America enjoyed post-World War II, China’s transition through that war, its own civil war and sharp economic rise mean its appetite for meat will continue to increase.

But it also presents an interesting conundrum with respects to the interaction between established cultures and brands that are new to them. Fake meat spreading into tough markets isn’t going to happen overnight, but it maybe come sooner against the backdrop of wider pushes to change our diets as the planet faces a future with scarcer resources and increasingly more mouths to feed as the population grows roughly 1.05% or 81 million people per year.

It’s an interesting if uneasy intersect between culture, economics and the environment: we could say definitively that because one group is disproportionately impacting the globe with its massive population, they should change. Yet on the other, we might risk dictating that because our current culture or lifestyle of choice is deemed more advanced or “better” than the old one we had, as we come to reckon with its consequences, that a group should move away from it — and toward the product we’re selling — just as they’re starting to enjoy any of the benefits.

What has to happen first to catalyze change? Does a culture have to be catered to above-all or does it depend on the brand’s global recognition, does the brand forcibly re-write the local culture a bit with strong localized imaging and marketing to gain traction — or will more dire circumstances take care of the re-writing?


October 18, 2019

Food is the Next Frontier for Multisensory Art

These days when we think about multisensory experiences, our first thoughts might start to gravitate towards the audio-visual interactivity of AR and VR, but what about food? As a medium, it remains a rich but comparatively underexplored frontier if we think outside the box of cuisine and restaurant contexts, even if they’re innovative. What makes food so special and why should we use it as a mode of expression?

Why Food Might Be Getting Left Out

A New York Times article written by William Deresiewicz in 2012 argued that despite the emergence of a new dearth of literature, awards and media surrounding food and food culture that mirrors that surrounding art, our efforts to elevate our appreciation for food have only hit a cultural ceiling composed of varying layers of foodie-ism.

“But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion,” he wrote. “An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one.”

While he is correct to point out that in many ways, our obsession with food has not led to art but replaced it as a “vehicle of aspiration and competition,” we’d say there is still strong potential for it as a medium, as has been explored throughout history.

Food as Visual Medium

Let’s start with how we might come to perceive food (still discernible as food) as a visual medium:

  • Food as the subject, where it’s stylized and presented in its raw or prepared-dish form as the primary focus of the work.
  • Whole foods or images of food that are used to complete larger works.
  • Ingredients as the medium such as sculpted sugar or chocolate, and other instances where the ingredients are valued for their physical properties as a working material.
  • Consumable “almost too good looking to eat” items such as cakes incorporating strong influences from other fields such as fine art, architecture and hard sciences.

The point is that however they’re used, so long as we can discern it looks like food, food evokes an immediate understanding and intimacy whether we consume them physically or just visually. For those that understand the context behind certain foods, their visual forms become just as codified and capable of carrying nuanced messages as other mediums.

Experience and “Performance” Revolving Around Food

In the mainstream, we might be put off attempts to “say something through food” with the likes of Dining in the Dark or Ichiran’s ramen-booths-for-one some might write off as gimmicky hedonism. But if art is meant to express and change perspectives, the ability for that to happen through food can’t be ignored when we can directly participate.

We’ve written about Virgilio Martinez’ Central, which takes diners through the layered ecosystems of the Peruvian Andes as well as “Hawai’i” Mike Salman’s Chef for Higher cannabis dinner parties meant to heighten the senses while decreasing inhibitions. These and other unique concepts that are coming out of culture look to reimagine how we approach food from the dining perspective. As with any multi-sensory installation, we pay for admission to restaurant concepts that increasingly resemble galleries, where everything from the serviceware to music is curated from other artists. Here, we’re simply paying to experience the chef’s “set” that encodes history, culture, and vision through their take on genres, their trademark mix of flavor, texture and scent notes.

Even outside of the restaurant context, however, there are plenty of ways artists are exploring themes in ways that are uniquely designed around food as the medium, even if we might not label it as art right away. Take LA-based art collective Fallen Fruit Collective as an example: its Public Fruit Jam encourages strangers to negotiate and collaborate on making a fruit jam using each participant’s respective ingredients. Similarly, their Endless Orchard project allows citizens to plant, map and share fruit trees, making it both public art and social initiative.

Distilling and reassembling flavors and scents

Lastly, we see culture, constantly in search for new experiences, immersed in a phase of experimentation. Whether they’re rooted in the culinary or scientific tradition or both, globally-minded artists and audiences alike are taking to different combinations of flavors, smells, and textures, whether they’re old or new history.

It’s this deconstructed approach to the sensory properties of food — and necessarily, smell — that remains a vast playground for exploration at the individual level. They divorce our existing preconceptions around food and use their elemental flavors, textures, and aromas as emotional notes with which to assemble sensory experiences for different purposes:

  • Isolation: From trending flavors like yuzu-flavored everything to beanless coffee made by the same people behind Impossible Meat, both instances involve isolating the flavors we recognize and like while removing those we don’t.
  • Sense memory: Copenhagen-based “flavor company” Empirical Spirits seek to bottle scenes and memories through its science-influenced approach to taste and aromas.
  • Translation: Oki Sato of Tokyo and Milan-based design studio Nendo created chocolates that embodied Japanese onomatopoeic words to describe texture, effectively using food to translate meaning between formats.
  • Augmentation: Sometimes, these elemental properties are used to add an extra dimension to other art, such as Art of Bloom’s use of scent to support its recent AR exhibition in Long Beach.

The Takeaway

As we can see, food is difficult to frame artistically once it leaves the context of the farm, kitchen, dinner table and restaurant, but we’d argue that yes, it absolutely exists as art we’ve only begun to explore. Whether we get to taste it or not, food can be used as a medium of great depth and complexity as with any art.

If we were to compare it to sound, the next most powerful emotional medium we have, we have the ability to manipulate emotion through food with flavor and aroma notes, textures as timbre, the whole spectrum of color, the Scoville scale, among other factors. Combined in thoughtful ways, they record memories, encode messages, drive narratives and shape culture all the same.

May 31, 2019

A looming problem with "ingestible beauty"

When it comes to ingestible beauty supplements, why are we so willing to swallow vague promises that we can make ourselves beautiful from the inside out?

How did we get here?

  • Wellness culture with all of its bloggers, gurus and influencers has bridged the gap between merely topical cosmetics applied externally and “ingestible cosmetics” consumed purely for benefits to hair, skin and nails.
  • Diminishing access to healthcare combined with an increased mistrust of Big Pharma pushed consumers to seek alternative approaches to health, with the Internet providing all the information needed to formulate those approaches.
  • The rise of this new market has created an explosion of “clean” beauty products and the associated web of ads and mixed messages make Internet and mobile customers more susceptible to strong IG-worthy marketing campaigns.

At the end of the day

Supplements are just that, concentrated forms of nutrients that are already found in our food, some in more than sufficient amounts. Naturally, many of our foods have less than ideal nutrition levels compared to the past, which means “topping up” on certain nutrients might be worthwhile.

Visually well-designed packaging doesn’t necessarily make the consumable product more potent or even effective. Good supplements don’t necessarily look sexy, but discretion is still needed to tell the difference between simply boring generic design and downright sketch. Just knowing that companies are trying to capitalize on this trend can help you see when something is too good to be true.

We’re all guilty of wanting to be healthier and look the part, but the paths by which we get there are going to get even blurrier in the information age as our vanity can be realized with newer supposedly more innovative methods. Recall when the crowdfunded Soylent meal replacement became available for people who simply didn’t want to bother with cooking and eating.

But while we can reason that health food products are simply conveniently packaged forms of macro and micronutrients that science recognizes are essential to us, we need to ask ourselves if similar products targeted for beauty work by the same logic.

April 29, 2019

Elliot Faber's SAKETEN focuses on 10 sake brewers in his new concept in Hong Kong

The idea of sharing a drink amongst friends after a long day is practically a religion in Japanese culture. But before sitting down for a said drink, connecting over the provenance and process is equally as important. In Japan, the unique concept of a saketen sits at the crossroads of a sake retailer, bar, and local community. It’s not quite a place to go and indulge in whatever will “do the trick” so much as gain knowledge and insight to potentially expand your palate.

For our good friend and collaborator Elliot Faber, he’s looking to further the agenda of sake with the launch of a new bar concept called SAKETEN. The name serves a dual purpose of paying homage to the concept of a saketen, but also serve as a platform for 10 specially-chosen producers who will have a special place on the shelves of SAKETEN.

The spot aims to provide a quaint and honest watering hole while also showcasing the incredible diversity of sake. The Japanese fermented rice beverage (careful, not wine), falls under a unique process where the rice’s starch becomes fermentable sugar and the yeast consumes the sugar to produce sake.

We caught up with accomplished Canadian sake samurai and published author over the concept of SAKETEN and the bright future ahead for sake.

Ezra’s Ln, Central
Closes at 2AM

What’s the concept behind SAKETEN? How did you come up with the idea?

In Japan, a saketen is a shop; think of it as your friendly neighborhood liquor store. However, it isn’t like a typical liquor depot in North America. It’s more like a small shop that embraces a community of enthusiasts. A place where you can ask the shopkeep about different bottles, and they will probably open some up to try. Before you know it, you’re half a bottle down, and some snacks start coming out, and you leave later that night with a bottle in hand and having tasted and learned something that you hadn’t tried before. The line between the right saketen is somewhere between a bar and a sake shop. We choose to lean a little heavier on the bar side, but our entire selection is available for retail through a takeaway window. On the other hand, we wanted to play with the word SAKETEN, which means 10 sake producers. We feature ten producers who take up residence over a period from six to 12 months. We go deep into selling and understanding their sake. We carry their different-sized bottle formats, their seasonal releases, limited edition and mainstream offerings to show just how diverse the offering of a single brewery is and the world of sake. I was inspired to create this concept after my visits to all of the community neighborhood liquor stores in Japan’s rural communities, and though it isn’t only a rural phenomenon, the sense of community and amount of sharing seems to be higher in these suburban areas.

Having started other restaurants/bars/concepts in the past, how does SAKETEN differ?

SAKETEN is open later than any of the other outlets I’m affiliated with. We want to be a place for our friends and colleagues to come and drink after work. This was also a key factor in developing the concept. With regards to Sake Central, if Sake Central is a comprehensive Japanese experience that emphasizes sake but embellishes on elements like glassware, ceramics, artists, food ingredients and preparation, SAKETEN is a bar. It is a place to get loose and carry out your evening. It is where you go AFTER dinner at Sake Central, Yardbird or Ronin, and maybe the staff joins you!  I have focused more than ever on storage as well. We feature a custom display fridge for optimal sake storage that keeps sake at -5 to 0 degrees Celsius and service fridges that keeps sake from 0 to 5 degrees plus a vintage sake warmer for warm sake service. We also have draft sake, whisky highballs, shochu highballs and of course Suntory beer on tap – the draft highballs are new for me.

What part of opening your own thing is always difficult? Which part gets easier?

It’s all about the partners. I couldn’t achieve anything without the people who support me every day and that list of people is getting bigger. But we are all a team, and we help each other wherever we need it, and we all share similar passion and ambitions: to get more people eating great food and drinking sake, enjoying our own interpretation of Japanese culture. It’s getting easier because of the support but licensing, getting the branding perfect, contractors… these things are never easy!

Where are we currently in the whole sake cycle? Education? Growth? What determines its velocity?

Sake is definitely in a growth phase. The overall volume of sake being consumed is lower, but the average price point is higher. Even an increase in the average spend of one or two US dollars has a massive influence on the quality and style of sake that people are drinking. Also, domestic consumption of sake might be going down, but internationally it’s growing. As Japan tends to be inspired by global trends, Japan needs to see how much the world loves sake and they will embrace it as their own again.

Do you think sake has a better chance to succeed with future generations that may drink less or prefer less alcoholic beverages?

Sake can be produced at multiple sweetness levels and alcohol levels. Once people understand how it is made and what effects its taste, it will become easier to try various styles that are suitable to their palate and diet.

Tell me about the sakes you currently stock, what informs that season’s choices? Or is it about diversity and breadth?

We are working with 10 producers from all over Japan. One project, Nihonshu Oendan, focuses on making one tank of unpasteurized, undiluted, sake at six different breweries across Japan. Their team participates in every step of the process at each brewery for their tank: from planting rice to harvest, production and bottling. Their sake is one of my favorite on the market right now! Another featured brewery, Shichiken, is basically sake royalty, they have existed for over 300 years in Yamanashi prefecture and have been a frequent host for various members of Japan’s royal family over the centuries. Their style is incredibly fresh and approachable, drinkable in large quantities!

What does success with SAKETEN look like?

SAKETEN has been designed to go global. I believe that first and second-tier cities around the world are ready for their own SAKETEN and that there are enough enthusiastic sake makers to see this vision through with me. I’m excited to watch this project grow and hope to use this project as a gateway to introduce more people to the enjoyment of sake and provide a watering hole for all of those sake lovers abroad whose palates are homesick.

Photography: Alex Maeland

August 31, 2018

The evolution of Chinese hybrid cuisines and the definition of "authentic"

Chinese food culture magazine The Cleaver Quarterly moderated a panel at Happy Family Night Market in Bushwick that discussed the evolution of Chinese hybrid cuisines and the definition of “authentic.”

What is “authenticity” in food?

  • The concept of authenticity in food is often limited to referring to a chef whose background matches that of the food they’re cooking.
  • Others value tradition and judge based off of personal recipes that have been passed down.
  • It’s measured by the reverence a specific group of people at a given place and period give it.
  • It respects a culinary heritage of a given dish or cuisine that was established or upheld by some formal body.
  • It comes from a base of training and appreciation for how dishes were cooked historically before trying to move forward with new concepts.

The “authors” of a cuisine
While hybrid foods help to bridge gaps that divide cultures, they also make it easier to “divorce a culinary tradition from the culture of its origin.” Food culture continually evolves. Older chefs might choose not to share traditions out of fear of losing their livelihoods to the “new guard”. The public is also responsible for understanding food history and learning the stories behind food culture to balance out blind enthusiasm for trendy concepts and ingredients.

The short, sweet, and possibly sour
Education will hopefully change mindsets about a given region’s cuisine (such as Asian flavors meaning the use of soy sauce) and bring awareness to established but comparatively unknown hybrid cuisines like Chinese-Dominican food. A younger generation of chefs are fighting against lowering the prices of their dishes compared to the historical culinary darlings of French or Italian cuisine. It will take time for Asian food to expand the same recognition of pricing tiers (hole-in-the-wall versus fine dining) like ubiquitous favorites such as pizza.

In this case, it’s no longer about if something is authentic, but whether authenticity is being fairly compensated enough to survive. If a cuisine has a chef with the same years of training, the same quality ingredients from the same supplier, and the same number of labor hours to produce a close relative of another cuisine, a greatly skewed consumer expectation on price stems not from any judgment of the food itself, but of the people that made it.

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