Buddha Food! What Impossible Burger's CEO Should Have Known (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
In 1996, I found myself eating often at vegetarian buffets in southern Taiwan. On most days, I ordered plates of braised gluten. The gluten not only looked like meat, but also mimicked the flavor and texture of the real thing. It was also surprisingly tasty. Served in thick sauce and flanked by hearty mushrooms, gluten was the meat lover’s solution to meatless living.
I frequented vegetarian restaurants, because in those days, I didn’t eat meat - mostly out of laziness and for superficial reasons. My accidental vegetarianism, however, surprised people in Taiwan. After all, I was an American, and Americans had a reputation for being beef lovers. Folks in Taiwan would ask, “Are you religious?”
That question surprised me. I had *not* connected vegetarianism with any form of spirituality, let alone ethical considerations. In the 1990s, virtuous eating had yet to be invented in the American context. Californians like me refrained from eating meat mostly for health and vanity. But in Taiwan, the cultural matrix was different. Vegetarianism had religious connotations. Older folks associated it with devout Buddhists and Taoists.
I hadn’t given much thought to mock meats until a couple of years ago, when it made headlines. Fake meat -- plant based and lab grown -- has become all the rage. Some of these companies had begun pushing their products in Asia. To my chagrin, Patrick O. Brown, the CEO of Impossible Burger, said that his product would save the world from the environmental damage caused by Chinese carnivorism. Adding insult to injury, Brown acted like Westerners had invented mock meats. He was furthermore ignorant about the thousand-year tradition of meat substitutes, one inspired by concern for animal welfare.
What follows below is a letter I have been tempted to send CEO Brown. You can tell me whether it is a good idea to share it.
Congrats on rolling out the ethical burger! I applaud your decision to move the dial forward and to help curb greenhouse gas emissions by promoting more sustainable food production. Bravo!
I will admit that I was a bit *surprised* (!?#@!) to see you quoted as saying ““Every time someone in China eats a piece of meat, a little puff of smoke goes up in the Amazon.” You *do* know that average Chinese meat consumption is half what it is in the United States? So why pick on China?
Casual racism aside, you also ignored that Asians have been eating vegetarian for millennia. They have done so for ethical reasons.
By the way, Asians also do a very nice job making mock meats, which are stunning in their verisimilitude. Most importantly, Asian mock meats are cheap. They’re made with plant-based ingredients like gluten and konnyaku (Devil’s Tongue).
All vegetarian meal in Beijing (Nov 2019)
Your team should have done more thorough market research. If you dropped that smug tone, it might also help your sales in the world’s largest market. Just think: 1.4 billion Chinese customers, sticking impossible burger on their dandan noodles, in their daily buns, and in their dumplings.
Since you haven't done ASIAN 258, perhaps I can enlighten you? I’ll start with a short history of enlightenment in Asia. Buddhist Enlightenment. Not your Palo Alto variety.
It all began with a North Indian prince who lived from the fifth to sixth century BC. His name was Siddhartha Gautama (suh·daar·tuh gaw·tuh·muh), or Sid. When Sid was 29, he had a mid-life crisis. He left his palace subdivision, unloaded his possessions, and backpacked around India. Think Eat Pray Love.
In ancient India, enlightenment did *not* mean going to some heaven or to a Beverly Hills mansion. Instead, it meant escaping reincarnation (which always came with the threat of being reborn as a lab rat or ant). To reach enlightenment, or nirvana, Sid tried various tricks. He did deprivation and started looking like Mick Jagger. That didn’t work. Then Sid started acting like Mick Jagger and gave gratification a shot. Also no cigar. Out of ideas, he tried meditating by a bodhi tree.
Luckily, a shepherdess spotted Sid and noticed that he was looking a little gaunt. Concerned, she offered him a nice porridge made with rich milk to fatten him up (I like to imagine it was kheer, since I just wrote about that last week for my class).
That lactic bomb came just in a nick of time. It gave Sid the energy he needed to power through his marathon meditating. After 49 days, he reached Enlightenment and got a name change (Buddha, the Enlightened One). He then shared his ideas with his circle of friends. But he died too soon. Apparently, he ate a plate of bad pork, which led to his consciousness being extinguished ahead of schedule. That was sad for his besties. But they consoled themselves with sharing Sid’s brand of salvation with the world. It’s called Buddhism. Get it? Buddha, Buddhism.
Like intermittent fasting, Buddhism went viral. Some of his followers hopped on camels and followed the caravans on the Silk Road to China. By the fourth century AD, Buddhism was a big thing with China’s top influencers.
But Chinese Buddhists were not yet vegetarians. Not even close. A good monk could eat meat as long as he didn’t see the beast getting killed, or didn’t hear the shrieks. It was also ok if the animal wasn’t killed just for your meal specifically. What you don't know can’t hurt you, right?
However, things changed after Chinese monks did a little more reading. While scanning the sutra blogs, they noticed that there were vegetarians in India. Those vegetarians had not only sworn off meat, fish, and eggs, but also alcohol, garlic, and oniony things. That blew their mind.
The Chinese team then realized that you could gamify the road to salvation. Like GradeCraft, they saw multiple pathways to reach nirvana. You could shave your head and become a monk or nun. Or you could donate money to the poor or to monasteries. Or you could eat your way to enlightenment. Big karmic payoffs awaited those who refrained from killing their meals.
Chinese Buddhists highlighted other benefits to vegetarianism. Vegetarianism was good for developing empathy. Once you stopped killing, you started wanting to protect *all* life. And indeed, some monks were so empathetic they swore off sesame oil, for fear that a fly might accidentally get squashed in the press.
These monks also advertised the practical benefits of giving up meat, fish, eggs, and members of the onion family on Buddhist Twitter. Meat-free living, for example, meant no farting and fewer nightmares. Life without garlic was also good for celibacy, as garlic was believed to stir up the passions (in layman's terms, it makes you horny).
This way of thinking caught on in China. The leaders of powerful monasteries liked it. The emperor liked it. So did the rich and idle. Soon enough, lay people -- that is, men and women who did not become monks and nuns -- adopted the vegetarian diet.
While they enjoyed the virtue signaling, lay influencers found cruelty-free eating personally a little challenging. Truth be told, the meatless diet did not fit well with the cultural matrix of the time. How so, you ask?
Well, first of all, people in medieval China were like University of Michigan students. They loved their (rice) beer and (lamb) burgers, and they believed that these foods were essential for staying fit. When some vegetarian pals died, their friends would throw shade at them. They’d write obits that told the world they asked for it!
Second, ancient Chinese didn’t want to be skinny. Poor people were skinny. Sick people were skinny. Rich people, the popular kids, were not. So when Chinese saw images of skinny vegetarian monks, they were turned off. "That won’t do!" they cried. "We want to look happy." In ancient China, happy meant being well padded -- having a belly and sporting cherubic cheeks.
Faced with these challenges, Buddhist cooks went back to the drawing board. They held team meetings and came up with ways of preparing meals that met all of their personal goals: cruelty free, appetizing, and fattening.
For inspiration, the Buddhist team looked to noodle makers. By the sixth century, the Chinese were expert noodle makers, apt at manipulating the gluten levels in wheat pasta. At some point, someone realized that if you stick dough in water too long, the starch will float to the top, leaving behind something that looks like a brain (yes, a brain). That “brain” could be shaped and cooked. What is more, with the right knife skills, the “brain” could be made to look and chew just like a chicken leg (even with the skin on).
Emboldened by the success of the experiment, cooks began playing with other ingredients. Some of them messed around with dried yogurt and paneer, carving them in the shape of eggs and bones. Others goofed off with jellies. Much to their delight, they realized that by adding food coloring to one jelly called konnyaku, you could make a dish that resembled animal lungs. Yum yum!
Our ancient kitchen scientists then rolled out their creations. Their taste testers liked the look and texture of fake meat. But there was just one problem: the gluten and jellies didn’t have a lot of fat. So Buddhist chefs added butter and sesame oil to the mix. They piled on the cheese, sprinkling it on top of wheat noodles and stuffing it into buns.
Fake meat was hot, especially the gluten balls. Soon enough, everyone in Asia wanted those balls. They began turning up in Korean monasteries. Then they took Japan by storm.
Fake meat even made its way to the United States. Japanese immigrants brought it to North America in the 1960s. This is why the food goes by a Japanese name (seitan).
Fun fact: gluten has caught on in survivalist circles. If you are curious about how to make it from scratch, there’s a guy in Tennessee who can teach you how to make the stuff in a sink and crock pot. By the way, he says seitan will be good for bunkering down during the coming apocalypse.
By now, Mr. Brown, you’re wondering why you wasted so much money on R&D when anyone can make their own fake meat. Well, as my mom would say: that’s your fault. No need to reinvent the wheel. Read food history.
The Other Brown
For the record, I am not a huge fan of the survivalist’s mock meats. But I love braised gluten, even when it is not shaped like chicken. The recipe for an elegant Shanghainese “cold dish” (kaofu 烤麩) appeals even to the carnivores in my family. A few years ago, I showed the recipe to one of the GSIs, a nutritionist. She confirmed that the combination of gluten, wood ears, shiitake mushrooms, and peanuts gives you a whole protein.
If you want to make your own gluten, you can use this recipe. The leftover starch, by the way, is liangpi 涼皮 (cold skin noodle), which I saw some of you avidly discussing on YellowDig
Fuschia Dunlop, “China, the birthplace of fake meat,” Economist, June 2, 2018.
Cathy Erway, “The Buddhist Mock-Meats Paradox,” Taste.
John Kieschnick, “Buddhist Vegetarianism in China” in Sterckx, Of Tripod and Palate, 186-212.
Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (California Studies in Food and Culture) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), Chapter 3: “Buddhism Transforms the Cuisines of South and East Asia, 260 B.C.E.-800 C.E.,” 102-132.
Robban Toleno. "The Celebration of Congee in East Asian Buddhism.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, vol. 30 (July 2017): 125-168.
-----Skilled Eating: Knowledge of Food in Yichu’s Shishi liutie, a Buddhist Encyclopedia from Tenth-Century China (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia). Vancouver, BC: UBC Theses and Dissertations, 2015.
Toleno is the world's foremost expert on Buddhist cuisine. He also has an unbelievable talent for reconstructing and photographing ancient culinary products. If you enjoyed the picture of the lungs, I encourage you to follow him on Twitter @RobbanToleno. His pictures are high art!