One of the most watched developments in the food space around the world is the emergence of plant-based meats. Promoted as a healthier, more environmentally-sustainable alternative to actual meat, these new meats are rapidly finding space on restaurant menus and grocery shelves in the USA and Europe. In India, too, the quest to develop a meat substitute that will taste, feel and nourish exactly like the real deal, has been on for a few years.
The latest to announce their foray into this space are actors Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh who are launching their company, Imagine Meats, this week. While the work has been in progress for the last one year, the first product is expected to roll out by the fourth quarter of the year. In an exclusive interview, the couple talks about why they’re creating plant-based meat alternatives for the Indian market.
Why have you decided to venture into the alternative, plant-based meat space?
Genelia Deshmukh: Four years ago, when we turned vegetarian, for us, vegetarian food only meant potatoes and paneer. We got used to it slowly. We also realised that we didn’t really miss meat, but just the taste of it. Riteish, especially, missed it. So we started to wonder if there was a way for us to do all the right things for animals, for the environment, but also get the taste of meat. And then last year, we went to the Good Food Conference in the USA and we were amazed that this idea which we had, had already been worked on so much all over the world. That’s when we started working on our idea more and now we’re at the stage where we’re nearing completion.
Riteish Deshmukh: For people who turn vegetarian, it’s very easy to go back to eating non-vegetarian food. Genelia is someone who believes that non-vegetarian food isn’t for her and she chose the vegetarian lifestyle. But I’m a little different; I’m a vegetarian — almost a vegan — but I do crave meat. I feel like eating chicken biryani, or a burger, but when we went to the USA, we were exposed to a lot of plant-based meats. Genelia took one of those burgers, minced it and made kheema out of it and we had it with pav. It tasted just like kheema pav and I realised I don’t need meat. It was the perfect kheema that I had craved this last 2-3 years. And I thought this is it. We started trying to figure out a way to make plant-based meat that would cater to Indian tastes and that’s how the journey began.
There have been meat replacements before like soya nuggets etc, which most meat eaters view as a poor substitute for the real thing. How is the plant-based meat experience different?
GD: We had a party at which we served this keema to our non-vegetarian friends, to see whether the taste would raise any eyebrows, or whether they would accept it at meat. We didn’t tell them it was (plant-based meat). And nobody guessed. Personally, I have never enjoyed soya nuggets etc, because I can feel the difference.
In India, there are a lot of days when people don’t eat meat. For example, Shravan is coming, and there will be a lot of non-vegetarians who will wait for those 30 days to be over. Or take Navratra. We also have a lot of friends who are vegetarians but curious about meat. So there is space for alternative meats, if done well. One of the things we discussed is that while we will have ready-to-eat food, we will also give people the chance to experiment with their own flavours.
RD: Right now there’s a lot of focus on the American or European way of eating and it’s mostly in the burger-eating space. And we are not a burger-eating nation, although we do like eating burgers. So we were looking at developing products like chicken tikkas, kebabs etc. We have right now teamed up with (American food processing company) ADM. Their in-house food scientists have worked through Covid and the lockdown to develop what we want, which is not the typical taste that they are catering to. Of course, in the future, we will engage with our own food scientists, but currently we want to go with what we think is best for the product.
What kind of products will you be launching?
RD: We want to be tight-lipped about that, but four-six products will be launched in phases. But yes, it will cater to the Indian palate, so we’re looking at things like seekh kebabs, chicken tikka, lamb keema, chicken keema. These are the priorities.
By when do you expect to roll out the first product?
RD: We were going to roll out earlier, but let’s see how fast we can go with everything right now. Hopefully, by quarter four this year.
There have been some health concerns about plant-based meats, notably the high salt content. How do you plan to tackle that?
RD: People love eating meat because of how it feels in their mouth and if you’re choosing to eat meat, we want to give a healthier option. Of course, there are concerns regarding high salt content etc., but it’s a process. There will be version 1, followed by version 2. We’ll keep improving our products each year.
GD: Yes, it’s definitely something that doesn’t have cholesterol, because cholesterol is only found in animal products. And I know there are a lot of people who want to reduce their carbon footprint, they want to go into sustainable living. I know people who are eating meat and who want to make that switch, whether it’s being a flexitarian or a vegetarian. There are people who want to eat meat twice a week, but they want to do it the right way. So this is obviously a better option, given everything that goes on with the meat industry — the water, the slaughterhouses, the gases.
One could argue that in India we don’t consume meat on the scale that the USA does. So why does it make sense to launch plant-based meats here?
GD: We had assumed that we are a more vegetarian country but at the Good Food Institute we learned that 70 per cent of the population is non-vegetarian. There’s also a large section of “guilty” meat eaters, who wouldn’t eat at home but will eat out, for whatever reason. They can take (plant-based meat) home and cook it.
RD: We’re not looking at changing everyone. This is a new market, it’s a niche and emerging market. Of course, there is a future where everyone is thinking of plant-based food, and it’s fantastic. But there are challenges now. What I’m saying is that there are many who eat meat, and maybe instead of eating it five times, they could try eating this twice a week. It’s better for you, and it tastes the same.