All the beef, but none of the meat

Li Anlan
Plant-based meat substitutes have arrived in China after many months of buzz and hype. But are they any good?
Li Anlan

After almost a year of buzz and hype, plant-based meat products have finally arrived in neighborhood cafes and restaurants in China.

Starbucks is working with both Beyond Meat and Omnipork, Tsui Wah and the Wagas empire are collaborating with OmniPork, and Papa John’s and bistro franchise Brut Eatery have teamed up with Chinese brand Starfield.

KFC is also testing plant-based “fried chicken” this week in three Chinese cities, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, a collaboration with US agribusiness Cargill. The products are sold for 1,99 yuan (28 US cents) for five pieces, and consumers must order online and pick up at designated stores.

The fried chicken is made of soybean, pea, wheat-based protein and crushed water chestnuts. KFC hopes to receive customer feedback and explore other plant-based options based on their reaction.

In August last year, KFC did a taste test of the plant-based fried chicken from Beyond Meat at an Atlanta restaurant, attracting many consumers to stand in line. The product received mixed reviews. In a story published by Insider, Ni'Kesia Pannell wrote: “I felt like the plant-based nuggets were a bit dry and even though they looked and smelled like actual chicken nuggets, they didn't taste like them.”

The trial in Atlanta was a huge success, KFC expanded the plant-based “fried chicken” at 65 restaurants in the US in February this year.

Plant-based proteins are low in calorie, cholesterol and include more fiber and minerals while being better for the planet. But they may not necessarily be absolutely healthier options, as these meat-mimicking products can rank higher in sodium content, according to nutritionist Lisa Drayer in a CNN story last August.

As a novel food, plant-based protein dishes are also more expensive than conventional real meat.

We ordered plant-based meat dishes from three restaurant franchises that use three different brands of plant-based meat products to see how meat-like plant ingredients can be.

All the beef, but none of the meat
Li Anlan / SHINE

Starbucks now serves plant-based meat dishes in China.

Tsui Wah + OmniPork

OmniPork is an all-purpose, plant-based ground pork product developed by food tech company Right Treat which was launched by Green Monday. Made with shitake mushrooms, peas, non-GMP soy and rice, OmniPork contains 86 percent less saturated fat compare to regular ground pork (84 percent lean). It has zero cholesterol and 4.5 grams of dietary fiber for each 100 grams.

The plant-based pork is free from added hormones, antibiotics, cruelty free and vegan.

We ordered Tsui Wah’s plant-based pork and fried egg rice dish. For the high price tag of 58 yuan, the dish didn’t live up to our expectations and turned out to be a quite mediocre rice dish without a distinct flavor and texture of plant-based pork.

Based on our taste test, the problem of the dish being less ideal is not the plant-based pork but the recipe and cooking: too much tomato and onion and very little protein, the sauce was also not enough and the rice became quite dry. On a side note, the egg was well cooked to have a rather dry yolk.

Hong Kong-based Green Common opened its Tmall Global store in late November last year, where OmniPork and other similar plant-based meat products are sold. The price is around 30 yuan per bag (230 grams) with additional shipping costs, as it’s cold-chain transported to preserve freshness.

Raw OmniPork can be used to make meatballs, dumplings, buns and any dishes calling for ground pork. The brand also sells premade convenience meals that can be heated in the microwave.

All the beef, but none of the meat
Li Anlan / SHINE

Tsui Wah’s OmniPork and egg rice

Starbucks + Beyond Meat, Omnipork

More than 4,000 Starbucks stores in China have begun serving plant-based dishes and oat milk beverages. Starbucks has three dishes featuring Beyond Meat and two with OmniPork.

With Beyond Meat’s debut in Chinese market, Starbucks gained wide attention and prompted curiosity among consumers.

We ordered the lasagna made with Beyond Meat plant-based beef and Vietnamese style salad featuring OmniPork.

The lasagna was a good-size portion with a generous spread of plant-based ground beef between the layers. The dish is best served hot and the feeling of beef is quite real, minus any unpleasant meaty smell or taste.

The tray of assorted roasted vegetables (potato, asparagus, tomato, squash and more) is a big plus. It’s delicious and completes a healthy meal.

The problem with the lasagna is the quality of the pasta, which is a little bit soggy as it comes pre-packaged.

The Vietnamese salad features a minced “beef” well-seasoned with Southeast Asian spices. It’s meat-like and flavorful. The vegetable and fruit salad on the second layer of the salad box was also fresh, crunchy and delicious. The only problem was the staple part of the salad – a quite cold, tasteless and crumbly noodle.

The microwavable packaging of both dishes was impeccable: clean, environmentally friendly and easy to carry with its paper handle.

The plant-based meat meals are very expensive compared to regular, real meat options. The lasagna and pesto pasta are priced at 69 yuan, the beef wrap is 59 yuan and the two OmniPork dishes are 59 yuan as well, while Starbucks’ regular beef roll is 39 yuan.

All the beef, but none of the meat
Li Anlan / SHINE

The new Starbucks lasagna is made with plant-based meat from Beyond Meat.

Brut Eatery + Starfield

Starfield is a Shenzhen-based startup that produces plant-based meat products, mainly pork-flavored artificial patties and meatballs. It gained its first publicity last fall by launching vegan meat mooncakes that used plant-based pork.

We ordered the meatball rice and it was a success. The meatballs with a surprising juicy texture and bouncy bite were close enough to real meat, and they are well-seasoned.

The vegetables in the dish were equally impressive: warm, flavorful and fulfilling. The purple cabbage was an excellent touch to add crunch. The mixed grain rice also added more dietary fiber to a healthy meal.

A pasta option featuring the same Starfield meatballs is also available.

The prices of plant-based meat dishes at Brut Eatery were also more reasonable, the pasta and rice dish is now 40 yuan for delivery during a promotion. Brut Eater also has a plant-based BBQ burger featuring a vibrant coral-colored bun, which is only served instore.

Papa Johns has launched special pizzas made using Starfield meatballs. The 9-inch pizza costs 80 yuan on delivery app

Nayuki, the milk tea and beverage franchise, launched burgers and breakfast sandwiches made using Starfield patties in Shenzhen last week.

All the beef, but none of the meat
Li Anlan / SHINE

Brut Eatery uses Starfield “meatballs.”

Special Reports