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This startup wants you to eat 'vegetarian chicken' nuggets; here's why

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Made with ingredients like soya, peas, mushrooms and ginger-garlic, plant-based meat or mock meat typically thrives on a recently-turned-vegan audience

This startup wants you to eat 'vegetarian chicken' nuggets; here's why
Neatly packaged, painted in purple, and with a stylized white font that reads ‘Shaka Harry’ is a packet of ready-to-cook ‘chicken’ nuggets. The packaging bears the title ‘just like’ before it says ‘chicken nuggets’. A similar package of ‘just like mutton’ samosas sits right next to it. Intrigued, I pick them both up. Later, I learn that both products are at the forefront of a whole new take on plant-based meat, and an ambitious experiment carried out by Anoop Haridasan and his start-up Liberate Foods.
Through August, Anoop has aggressively marketed four plant-based meat products under Liberate’s newly crafted brand ‘Shaka Harry’. You guessed it: the name is a play on Shakahari (Hindi for vegetarian). “We wanted it to be playful and light-hearted,” he tells me.
What exactly is plant-based meat?
From ‘chicken’ nuggets and ‘mutton’ samosas to ‘shami kebabs’, Shaka Harry is trying to make a dent in the market for meat — by providing a vegetarian alternative. “I came up with the idea simply because I have come to realize that the way we are producing and consuming meat is not sustainable for future generations,” says Anoop, “The goal for us is to develop plant-based meat for the Indian palette, and with that in mind we launched in October.”
Made with ingredients like soya, peas, mushrooms and ginger-garlic, plant-based meat or mock meat typically thrives on a recently-turned-vegan audience. The product resonates with a dietary lifestyle that aims to consume only plant-based foods, and stay away from meat or animal products. The lifestyle stems from the argument that vast tracts of land are utilised to produce cattle feed in order to support the meat industry — a practice that will fail the sustainability test in the long-term.
Thriving global market
A study conducted by research firm Markets and Markets says the global plant-based meat market is valued at $ 4.3 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14 percent, to $ 8.3 billion by 2025. The concept is not new, even to India. In fact, America’s two most popular mock meat brands — Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — do business, here. However, at price points of Rs 999 for 250 grams of meat, Beyond can’t help but bear the tag of ‘super-premium’.
On the other hand, Shaka Harry’s products are uniformly priced at Rs 295 for 250 grams. The company’s other key differentiator is its claim that its taste is in tune with Indian taste-buds and preferences — samosas and kebabs are local snacking staples, after all. In contrast, Beyond’s patties and sausages bear a distinct beef flavour — another thumbs down, apparently, in a market that doesn’t consume too much of the meat.
“We began operations in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, and are largely present at nine offline stores and five e-commerce platforms including our own,” says Anoop, “In a week, our stock flew off the shelves; the demand is unprecedented.”
Liberate Foods’ goal is fairly straightforward: “We are targeting sales of Rs 20 to 30 lakh per month over the next five months to chart a steady growth trajectory.” In addition to four products in the consumer segment, Liberate also has five products exclusively for the industrial/restaurant segment.
The company’s target group is also all too clear: the meat-eater with a conscience. “The statement we’re making is that there needs to be a change in behaviour,” says Anoop, “If you eat meat 5 times a week, and you can switch to alternate sources of plant-based meat three or two times a week, that is a significant change. You don’t have to be vegan to do that.” Liberate Foods hopes to have 20 ‘just like’ products under the Shaka Harry brand, in the next 12 months.
Is it as good as real meat?
Back home, I open my packet of ‘chicken’ nuggets and fry them for lunch. I take a whiff at what’s on my plate — there’s no familiar smell of freshly fried chicken. I take a bite. If I didn’t know what I was eating and was lunching over work, I must confess I’d have thought this was most certainly chicken.
“That’s why mock meat actually works in the processed food category,” says Nishanth Chandran, Founder and CEO of Tender Cuts, an e-commerce platform for the sale of packaged meat. “A layer of bread crumbs or dough can do wonders in masking the texture and taste of plant-based meat to make you think that what you’re eating is actually chicken.”
However, even that perception, Tender Cuts discovered, does not stand the taste test especially when plant-based meat is placed and tasted next to actual meat. “We had proposals from some plant-based meat producers to sell these products on Tender Cuts,” says Nishanth, “In a taste test we learnt that all our subjects accurately picked real meat when presented with both, mock and real meat side-by-side, and were asked to detect which of the two was actual meat.”
He adds: “Another test masked as a buffet saw us not place both meats side-by-side, but mix them up — we had mock meat for starters and actual meat for main course. Nearly seven out of ten test subjects did not know they were having plant-based chicken nuggets.”
Can demand sustain?
However, even the elimination of obvious bias notwithstanding, a meat-selling platform like Tender Cuts does not expect longevity in the market for mock meat. “I believe that mock meat makers are catering to a market that may not exist in the first place, in India” says Nishanth, “Americans consume meat seven times a week. Indians don’t. The average Indian meat-eater consumes meat three times a week. The days he or she doesn’t, their palette does not crave for meat anyway.”
Then, there’s also a hole in flavour profile of mock meat. “Indians like comfort food — chicken gravy or a chicken roasted over the tandoor,” Nishanth says, “Plant-based meat cannot deliver that kind of food or taste.” However, the bigger question mark that lingers over the sustainability of plant-based meat is its price tag.
Although Shaka Harry, for one, is far less expensive when compared to Beyond, it is still pricier than actual meat. Sample this: a 450-gram package of chicken nuggets costs about Rs 230; Shaka Harry’s ‘just like chicken’ nuggets are priced at Rs 295 for 250 grams.
The only differentiator, plant-based meat makers can claim, is that a long-time meat-eater who cares about sustainable eating habits would buy their product. But the jury is still out on just how deep that market is, and if it is willing to pay a premium for mock meat even if it is cheaper than existing American brands.