Cultured chicken

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. In the past few years, I’ve eaten more alternative proteins – from meat- like attempts to near-perfect simulacrums – than ever before in my entire life, and have found myself, with no small amount of cognitive dissonance, enjoying them.

I grew up idolising vegan-mocking food writers such as the late Josh Ozersky and Anthony Bourdain. While from different generations, both belonged to a crop of unapologetic meat eaters that fetishised animal flesh and all its related products. Bourdain compared vegans to Hezbollah while Ozersky founded Meatopia, a food festival heavily focused on, well, meat.

Meals were indulgent, offal was sacred and steaks were preferably dry-aged and non-negotiably medium-rare. Vegetarians and their ilk, meanwhile, were a breed to be scorned for their self-righteousness and foolish rejection of flavour.

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I readily lapped up the rhetoric. It had a rugged, edgy Cro-Magnon appeal to it and gave me an excuse to eat all the delicious meat I wanted. Over the years, however, my position has gradually softened; health concerns eventually will outstrip any misguided principles. But my disdain for products that pretended to be meat remained. Every single bean cutlet, eggless mayonnaise and retextured soy product that I’d had up till that point was less than desirable.

The first surprise came when I ate what I thought was a chicken nugget, only to find out that it was made from Quorn – a protein-rich meat substitute derived from an edible fungus. It has been around since the 1980s, but was only introduced to the Singapore market in 2017. The bar for a chicken nugget isn’t very high, but to be convinced by mock meat was a new experience.

Then came Impossible Foods, which created a meat-free burger patty that, when seared, sauced and served between a bun, was nearly indistinguishable from actual beef, save for a slightly soya- like aftertaste. The company’s secret is heme, a molecule found in every living plant and animal that makes meat taste like meat. Impossible uses plant-based heme produced via the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast.

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Most recently, I tried something I never thought possible in my lifetime: cultured meat. It requires a fraction of the land and resources to produce – and doesn’t involve the slaughter of animals. Made by growing animal cells in a nutrient solution, it is a phenomenon straight out of science fiction – only it’s already happening. Eat Just, the company behind the chicken nuggets made from cultured meat that I tried, is the first to have its product approved for commercial sale globally.

While the nuggets were frankly underwhelming, the potential behind them is overwhelming. The price for producing cultured meat has decreased by several orders of magnitude over the years and it is well on its way to becoming a viable alternative to raising and slaughtering animals.

More importantly, cultured meat holds the potential for recreating the gourmet end of the spectrum of every rare, prized or endangered-animal product. With enough control over the technology, everything from A5 wagyu, foie gras and caviar to shark’s fin and abalone can be produced en masse from a single starter cell. The technology isn’t there yet, but I look forward to the day when indulgence and guilt don’t have to go hand in hand – and that is by far better than having to eat veggie burgers.

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