As the title of my blog suggests, I am an omnivore. I eat meat, but I frequently try the offerings of companies that attempt to make meat substitutes, in the interests of sustainability. And, of course, in the interests of an ever-curious omnivore.
The results are usually less than savory. Such lab-created frankenfoods often sport the flavor and texture of wet cardboard, Play-Dough, or dense, chunky tofu.
For me, the best successes in vegetarian meals that can satisfy this carnivore have been the ones in which no one tried to create any fake meat. In other words, the creator of the meal utilized vegetables and grains in their natural forms and enhanced their flavors via kitchen preparation, not by extruding them through a contraption and blending them with ingredients we can’t pronounce. Restaurants like Moosewood, whose chefs make use of quinoa, beans, fresh veggies, and clever combinations of spices, excel with such dishes. For a while I have wondered if fake meat could ever produce as memorable a meal.
A promising contender walked onto the fake meat stage last week. On July 28, Momofuku Nishi, the Asian fusion joint in Chelsea opened by chef David Chang (founder of Lucky Peach magazine), began offering the Impossible burger: a burger that bleeds. According to Impossible Foods, the manufacturer of the burgers (can I call a fake meat company a manufacturer? Or a fake slaughterhouse?), their vegan meat is the result of five years of reverse-engineering real meat—what gives it flavor, color, and texture. But more importantly, the company went after an integral element that makes meat taste like meat: blood.
The blood in Impossible burgers is heme, or hemoglobin derived from plants. That process sounds like an intriguing but creepy science experiment. But how does it taste? Articles praising the burger abound, such as when a writer for Vogue wrote “It Looks and Tastes Like the Real Thing but Is Totally Meat-Free” without any indication that she took a single bite of said burger, and instead just rearranged words from a press release.
So I had to try it for myself. And so was everyone else at Momofuku. And I mean everyone. Luckily, I arrived at the restaurant before they ran out that day. And I was rewarded with a handful of plant meat, as pictured above. As you can see, this burger is pink on the inside. Medium rare. My first bite yielded a vague taste of peanut butter, and I’m not sure why. But subsequent bites were as burger-y as any other burger. Neat trick, I thought.
I wanted to get to know this burger a little better. To isolate it, I broke off a little morsel, careful not to grab a piece with melted American cheese on it, and I ate it by itself. The charring was crunchy and pleasant, but it resembled more of a falafel-like crunch than a charred beef crust. While the meat was juicy (something I had never experienced before in my many jaunts of fake meat exploration) and the texture came close to the fatty chew of ground beef (a second milestone never experienced before in such jaunts), the flavor was missing a note—as if a musician forgot to show up at the meat melody recital—and the burger fell back to the usual dense, chunky tofu routine of some if its predecessors.
But let’s face it—picking a piece of burger out of the bun and eating it by itself is weird. And possibly un-American. So I kept eating the burger as it was meant to be eaten, with big, indulgent vampire chomps. When each mouthful brought a harmony of melted cheese, pickles, lettuce, potato bun, tomato, and a mayo-like burger sauce along with the meatless burger (and let’s not forget the aftertaste of the salty fries served with the $13 burger), the effect was unmistakable: I was eating a hamburger. Not the best burger I’ve ever had, but not the worst either. The effect could be analogous to that of mp3 compression of audio files: some information is lost, but the ear may not notice the missing sounds while hearing other frequencies at the same time, or the loss may be noticed but acceptable. A mind trick. But one that requires only a quarter of the water used to produce the same sized cow-based burger.
For me, the Impossible burger ranks up there with the fake pepperoni pizza at Vegan Pizza in Garden Grove, California, whose combination of oven charring, brightly acidic tomato sauce, and oil may have triggered a similar mind trick.
If you want to try the Impossible burger at Momofuku, be prepared for a line, and also be prepared for getting cornered by a chatty vegan evangelizer at counter (“Do you have Netfix? You should watch Cowspiracy, blah blah blah, etc…”). But the burger is worth the jibber jabber, and it represents an important step in the evolution of plant-based meat.