A Vegetarian Game-Changer


Posted by Sam Schrader - Friday, March 9th, 2012

There have been many reasons why I’ve entertained the thought of going vegetarian. . .

I know it’s healthier in many aspects. I know the production of meat results in a huge environmental burden. I know there is such thing as delicious vegetarian food since I live in New York. And I could give up beef, pork, fish and all game meats. I’ll miss a good steak and spicy tuna rolls, but I can do without them.

Those foods notwithstanding, my kryptonite is chicken. I love a nice bowl of spicy chicken curry, chicken kebabs, that kind of roasted chicken basted in a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and so forth.

Chicken in all of its forms keeps me from going vegetarian. My vegetarian and vegan friends tell me this or that product tastes exactly like chicken, but it never does. It tastes fine, but it’s certainly nothing I would call a chicken substitute. The bizarre non-chicken texture is always off-putting to me. However, that may soon be a thing of the past.

Turns out, a Maryland-based company called Savage River Farms has been feverishly working on perfecting a new type of soy-based chicken substitute. To teetering non-vegetarians, this must sound awfully familiar.

But hear me out. Because this new product really does look, smell and taste just like chicken.

According to Savage River’s founder and president Ethan Brown, the biggest breakthrough has been his company’s ability to create a soy protein chicken substitute that even has the same texture as chicken. Brown even goes so far as to say “You can basically put this product head-to-head with an Oscar Mayer chicken strip. It’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two.”

To University of Missouri biological engineering Professor Fu-Hung Hsieh, this product is, in many ways, the culmination of 20 years of research. Savage Farms has been using Hsieh’s research on soy proteins to help create its unique product. “This is a dream for lots of researchers. They want what they have done in the laboratory to become a commercial entity.” Hsieh’s discovery that adding fiber to the soy mixture made the end product tear and feel like chicken, was the missing link.

Making the soy chicken is an involved process, but it’s no less involved than all the preparation needed to take a living chicken and turn it into something ready to cook.

The soy chicken recipe starts simple with soy protein isolate (SPI) which is just de-fatted soy flour. After adding water, heat and pressure, the combination is put into a mixing cylinder as part of the “extrusion cooking” method Hsieh uses. During this portion, colors and flavors are also added to the mixture. By adding more water during this process, the soy becomes more fibrous like chicken. The mixture is then taken out, molded into whichever desired shape, then either frozen or dried in an oven.

Beyond the advantages for fence-sitting vegetarians craving a hot wing, Savage Farms founder and president Ethan Brown notes a very important benefit of this new product: While it’s good there’s a great tasting realistic chicken substitute, the environmental implications of a well-selling alternative cannot be understated.

As of now, Savage Farms is aiming to start commercial production this year. And if this product lives up to the hype, I will gladly belly up to the kitchen table and devour a pile of my thermo-nuclear spicy soy protein vindaloo with a side of garlic naan and mango laasi. And I'll do it with zero guilt and pure chewing satisfaction.