Faking It

The tofu slaughterhouse is a friendly place: Bravo!'s Louie Liu

The tofu slaughterhouse is a friendly place: Bravo!'s Louie Liu

Bravo! Café and Bakery
1106 Grand Avenue
St. Paul

Evergreen Taiwanese Restaurant
2424 Nicollet Avenue

The most curious thing about the mock fish I ate the other day was the skin. It was a beautiful, dark blackish-green and it smelled like the sea—fishy, almost.

In case I was worried that I was eating real fish—and I wasn't worried exactly—Serena Chen, my server at Bravo! Café and Bakery on St. Paul's Grand Avenue, assured me that the skin on the restaurant's homemade faux fish is faux, too.

"It's really seaweed," Chen explained, adding that her stepfather, Bravo! chef and co-owner Louie Liu, makes the delicacy himself in the restaurant's tiny kitchen. Each piece of Liu's "fish" is made from a soy base. (Some other dishes at the restaurant include hand-pressed wheat gluten, the base ingredient in mock duck, and a vegetarian staple in most Vietnamese restaurants.) Liu throws in the seaweed to give the food a more authentically saltwater taste.

When it's topped with a sweet-sour sauce and paired with a generous serving of rice and steamed broccoli (a bargain at just $4.75), the result is a dish that doesn't taste all that much like fish but doesn't taste like pressed wheat, either. It resides comfortably in between, in the growing culinary green zone that happily accommodates both flesh and vegetable eaters.

Faux, mock, fake—call these meat substitutes what you will. In recent years, American megafood producers like Morningstar Farms (a division of Kellogg's) and Boca (Kraft) have jumped on the healthy-food bandwagon, filling co-ops and supermarkets with an ever-widening array of mostly soy-based fake-meat options. But in Asia, mock meat is nothing new.

"For a long time, meat substitutes have been common all over Southeast Asia," explains Julie Miller Jones, a professor in the College of St. Catherine's family, consumer, and nutritional sciences department. "In Vietnam and Taiwan, for instance, a large segment of the population is Buddhist. Because they are often opposed to killing, many Buddhists are vegetarians."

That's the case at Bravo!, where the Chen/Liu family became committed vegetarians after immigrating to the United States from Taiwan about a decade ago. "We are Buddhists," Chen says, "and it made sense for us. Also, my mom had a good friend who was vegetarian and she taught her about making vegetarian food. It's a much healthier way of eating. Now none of us eat meat."

In parts of Asia, vegetarianism is more of an economic decision than a moral one, adds Jones, who teaches a popular course on intercultural food patterns. "A lot of the innovation behind creating meat substitutes like tofu and mock duck developed out of a culture of necessity," she says. "Now meat substitutes are a normal part of the average person's diet in that part of the world."

That search for alternative proteins has been fruitful (no pun intended). "Gluten is the primary protein in wheat," Jones continues. "It's also found in rye and barley. You can make gluten by taking cold water and making a dough ball and running the dough ball under water. Eventually the starch will all wash out. What's left is the gluten protein." Though it may sound less than perfectly yummy, this substance can be formed into meatlike shapes and combined with vegetables.

Why go to all that trouble when you can just toss a piece of chicken breast in with your stir fry? It's full of lean protein and much more readily available. That may be true, but Jones cautions that overconsumption of anything can be bad for your health.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't recommend that a person eat meat three times a day at every meal either," she says. "In the U.S., the average serving size of everything, especially protein, is obscene. In some restaurants, the smallest steak you can buy is eight ounces, which is twice the amount of protein a person needs in a whole day."

Bravo! is a tiny place, with just four tables and a cluttered counter, but until recently the restaurant offered an impressive all-mock-meat lunch buffet. Late last year, the family dropped the buffet in favor of individual made-to-order dishes, and they now offer as many as 10 options, including mock chicken, beef, pepper steak, and pork chow. Despite their carnivorous namesakes, none of Bravo!'s entrees contain meat. (Liu cautions, however, that the orange chicken, beef, and the pork chow contain eggs, and therefore are not considered vegan.)

As a former dim sum chef, Liu aims for authenticity in his mock-meat dishes. "I like to make everything look and taste as much like real meat as possible," he says. "People feel more comfortable when it looks more real."


Over in Minneapolis, in the clean and cozy basement dining room at Evergreen Taiwanese Restaurant, faux fans can choose from an even bigger selection of mock-meat dishes (mock squid! fake shrimp!). Though there are also plenty of options for real-meat eaters on the menu, the restaurant has a loyal customer base of vegans, who appreciate the owners' policy of using separate woks for vegetable and meat dishes.

In fact, up and down Nicollet or University Avenues, even the tiniest Vietnamese or Chinese hole-in-the-wall will offer at least one dish that can be made with tofu or mock duck. Typically, there are many.

And though mock meat has its origins in Asia, its influence has spread to other cuisines. At any of Pizza Luce's five Minnesota locations, you can get a vegan pizza with veggie sausage and soy cheese. Triple Rock in Minneapolis has vegan sloppy joes. Birchwood Café has a tempeh Reuben. At lunchtime, Café Brenda serves up a mean mock-duck taco.

This mountain of mock meat has drawn the attention of the Norfolk, Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which recently named Minneapolis the seventh-most vegetarian-friendly large city in the United States (Portland and Seattle were numbers one and two; Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, numbers six and eight).

These city rankings may not stand up to strict statistical scrutiny. PETA spokesperson Reannon Peterson explains that staffers "gathered input from our members via our website, then we surveyed our campaigners who travel around spreading the world about animal rights. We also looked at the number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the city and the variety of vegetarian foods available in stores."

Though some strict vegans and animal-rights activists have a moral objection to eating vegetarian foods made to resemble meat, Peterson says that PETA is heartened by the recent proliferation of imitation-meat products.

"We want faux meat to get into the mainstream," she says. "We try to keep up on all the great new vegan and vegetarian faux-meat options that are coming out."

Peterson has been a vegan for six years, but she grew up in a Wisconsin family of meat-, white bread-, and sugar cereal-eaters. The last time she was home, she made a vegan dinner for her family. "I cooked faux beef burritos," Peterson says. "And everybody went crazy over it. It's a healthy, meatless form of protein, and it really tastes and looks like food they are used to eating."

The greatest tribute to how far faux meat has come? She was able to pick up the ingredients at her local grocery store.