The Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the most celebrated festivals in Asia, may not seem like the right time to promote faux-meat pastries in China—but two companies are trying to do just that.
Traditionally a harvest festival held on the day of a full moon in the fall, Mid-Autumn celebrations involve family reunions, admiring the moon, and gifting one another boxes of mooncakes—a disc of flaky pastry usually filled with a thick paste. In China, there are two main varieties of mooncakes—the southern styles popular in Hong Kong and Guangdong province that are usually made of lotus seed paste, while the Shanghai-Suzhou-style incorporates red-bean paste or a minced pork filling.
To offer an alternative to the pork-filled variety, Beijing-based Zhen Rou (珍肉), or “treasure meat,” began selling artificial-meat mooncakes this week on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, part of the Alibaba empire. The company got more than 3,000 orders for its boxes of six mooncakes, made of wheat powder and protein isolated from green peas, which the company says it sources from Canada (link in Chinese). It began delivering today (Sept. 10), just three days ahead of the Mid-Autumn Festival on Friday. Consumers will need to bake or pan-fry the mooncakes before eating them.
Another company, Shenzhen-listed Yantai Shuangta Food, said it had received 1,000 orders for its plant-based mooncakes from Alibaba’s Tmall, local finance newspaper China Securities Journal reported during the weekend. Both Chinese companies price their mooncakes around the same as a traditional mooncake.
The 4,000 orders are just a tiny fraction of the huge number of mooncakes China buys, gifts, and consumes every year. In Hong Kong alone, where seven million people reside, more than a million mooncakes are discarded after the festival. And it’s unclear how much headway they can make against people’s traditional mooncake preferences.
Still, the faux meat mooncakes might be launching at just the right time to drum up interest in a new generation of meat substitutes. Pork prices are sky-high in China due to a yearlong outbreak of African swine fever that saw mass culling of pig herds—in August, pork prices soared 47%, almost double the increase in July. A recent publication under China’s state-run newspaper Global Times even tried to dissuade people from eating pork, citing health concerns over high fat.
Already, Yantai Shuangta Food and Zhen Rou have signed a memo to promote other fake meat products, according to an announcement last week. Meanwhile, California-based plant-based meat substitutes maker Impossible Foods recently said it’s making China “highest priority for future expansion.“
But it’ll probably require sustained price rises for real meat and meatier fake meat to get most Chinese consumers interested. As of 2017, China ate about 30 kilos of pork a year per capita (66 pounds).
Chinese tech publication PingWest had its journalist sample Zhen Rou’s mooncakes, and found they tasted a lot like meat—but were way too chewy compared with the real thing. Zhen Rou’s founder Lu Zhongming admitted it has a way to go: “China’s market is a big challenge. Chinese consumers have higher demands. Our product is close to American products, but it’s still not enough in terms of tastiness,” Lu told the China Securities Journal.
One thing that these companies have going for them, though, is that plant-based fake meat is very familiar to China. Wheat gluten has long been used as replacement for duck, for example, but again, anyone who’s not actually vegetarian knows it’s not the real thing.