Since it first came into the UAE in late 2019, the faux meat market has exploded. Most burger joints in the UAE today have vegan options, whether it is Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, while customers at supermarkets will find everything from vegan sausages to mince on shelves.
Even halal food producer Al Islami Foods in the UAE has jumped on board the plant-based bandwagon with a burger made from sunflower protein.
But for those finding such offerings still too "meaty", or were never fans of beef in the first place, there is welcome news. While faux meats have traditionally fixated on beef substitutes, plant-based chicken is on the rise, and it looks like it is here to stay.
Plant-based chicken isn’t new. Competition has been heating up with a number of exciting new launches from big players: Impossible Foods recently announced that it plans to debut plant-based chicken nuggets, made using textured soy protein and sunflower oil, in autumn this year. The announcement comes on the heels of rival Beyond Meat's launch of faux chicken tenders.
So why the renewed interest in faux chicken?
Andre Menezes, the co-founder and chief executive of Next Gen Foods, the company behind plant-based chicken brand Tindle, says it’s all about its versatility.
“Chicken is the only protein that’s really universal. Unlike beef, that is mostly consumed in the US, Argentina and Brazil, chicken is consumed in every single country, [in] every single cuisine.”
This means the demand is potentially even bigger than that of plant-based beef. Tindle, launched in Singapore in 2021, is already sold in over 70 restaurants across Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. And it now plans to enter the UAE market in September.
“The UAE has an amazing market for chicken – its per capita poultry consumption is the highest in the region,” says Menezes.
Considering the demand, it does beg the question why companies have been so slow to offer chicken substitutes in the first place.
“It’s mostly related to the fact that it’s companies in the US that pioneered the faux food movement and the most common dish there is the beef burger. Also given that sustainability has been a major driver, and producing beef is a very inefficient system, you’ll understand why most companies started developing beef substitutes first,” explains Menezes.
The ingredients and versatility of plant-based chicken
While every company has its own recipe and ingredients for its plant-based meats, Tindle prides itself on only nine ingredients – water, texturised protein (with soy, wheat gluten and wheat starch), Lipi, coconut oil, methylcellulose, and oat fibre. Of these Lipi, a blend of plant-based fats and flavour, is their own creation.
Menezes explains that the product was reverse-engineered, to recreate "three things we love most about real chicken": the fibrous texture, the chicken taste which comes from chicken fat and the versatility.
The end result? “Chicken” patties that smell, taste and cook like the real deal, with no birds hurt in the process.
The product, which is sold as 50-gram patties, can be moulded and shaped into different sizes – be it for a skewer or for a shawarma stand. It's also the reason why it's been used by names such as chef Manjunath Mural who helmed the four-time Michelin-starred The Song of India restaurant in Singapore. W Hong Kong’s Rafa Gil, a finalist on Netflix’s The Final Table, is also a fan.
Indeed, a brief scroll through the dishes made with Tindle include favourites such as butter chicken, sushi, dumplings, katsu curry and kung pao chicken.
When Tindle launches in the UAE, it will be exclusively sold to restaurants and chefs, says Menezes.
“It is part of our strategy to show consumers you can have a delicious plant-based experience, made even more special by a great chef. In fact, in the food space, that is the hardest nut to crack. Great chefs will never work with a product that they do not like, so establishing that connection has been a great experience for us,” he says.
Who is buying plant-based chicken?
While Tindle’s products are actually made in Europe, the company with its headquarters in Singapore is seeing a rising demand for faux meats in Asia.
Although Menezes admits that the “average demand is currently below that of Europe or the US”, there is a growing hunger that has “come out of nowhere and is rising very quickly”.
“We are seeing a lot of excitement in global cities especially among 18-35-year-olds, people who are urban, well-educated, global,” he says.
However, nine out of 10 times, their consumers aren’t vegans, but meat eaters so “the product has to be able to compete with the real thing”.
“The reason a lot of people are shifting to meat substitutes is not because they don’t eat meat; but because of sustainability factors. It’s for people who like meat but don’t like the way it is produced. They are keen to reduce their consumption, limit it to special occasions – be it from an environmental perspective, for animal welfare reasons, or due to health concerns,” he says.
However, there remains one aspect that may deter meat-eating consumers – that faux chicken is usually double the price of the real thing.
“In the future, it will be cheaper than chicken – because we are, after all, removing the animal from the equation,” says Menezes. “But now, because of the scale of production, the prices are slightly higher.”
While that doesn’t make that big a difference for Tindle, as the company works directly with restaurants, which usually absorb the costs or price the dish a maximum of 20 per cent more than the chicken equivalent, Menezes says customers are usually happy to pay for that sustainable solution.
“As someone who came from the meat industry, I can honestly say this is the future. I knew it the first time I tried faux. And I think one day, everyone will feel the same. It’s just a matter of trying it and having access to it. And, as it grows more mass market, it will only get cheaper.”