After a failed bus attempt, two tram rides and a misguided 20-something minute walk (Google maps is not my friend), the lights of Brunswick street called out in the fading night sky. Madame K’s Vegetarian; we stumbled on the quaint restaurant with its neon sign lighting the pavement. Inside, multicoloured cushions lined the mismatched wallpaper walls with mounted blue china plates. Framed family photos against trinkets on side tables gave a feeling of eating in someone’s home, in an empty restaurant with the sounds from our conversation filling the room.
Not far from the local Asian restaurant one can find along any street in Melbourne, the point of difference is that this one is a falsity. Not in terms of its authenticity, what this restaurant provides is something known as mock meat. As the name suggests, meat that is, in fact, not meat. Fake meat. F-eat. M-ake. I don’t think those will catch on.
Coming from a Greek background, a meat based diet is necessary for survival. Not a scientific fact, but the Greeks would have you believe it. For me, fasting for Lent means a no meat diet, which gives me a taster of the vegetarian lifestyle for a week out of every year. Though I might complain before starting the fast each year, it’s never as hard as I have myself believe. Interestingly, up until this year, finding a meat-like substitute was never something I considered. Tofu, vegetables and countless carbs rounded out my week’s diet. It just so happened that this year while I was on Lent, Bethan invited me to the Cornish Arms for a vegan “chicken” burger.
So let us both understand. I’m a meat eater who is open to trying a vegetarian/vegan diet and if that involves mock meat, then I have my fork ready. Before this experience, I had tried mock chicken but not ventured from that.
We decided to order a range of dishes with different meat substitutes to get a true test of mock meat. The Lemongrass Duck, Lamb Madras Curry, Barbecue duck and the Fish curry. What the dishes didn’t come with, however, was a warning. ‘May contain hot chilli’ would have been nice, but perhaps I was too naive and should’ve anticipated the chilli content given they were Asian dishes.
While the chilli was a personal issue (self-confessed chilli coward), it seemed to overpower every dish. Even if you thought you might, just might, be able to taste the mock part of the “meat”, you get hit with a piece of chilli. And while it wasn’t so hot that it required me to down ten glasses of water after each bite, it was definitely a factor to consider in this mock meat experiment.
When the dishes arrived at the table, my immediate thoughts were that they were beautifully presented. Rice made into a perfect mound with each serving dish garnished with herbs. That and the small portion size. Perhaps my idea of the word ‘large’ is different. They gave off an aroma that any other good meat dish would, which satisfied my mind into thinking what I would be eating would be meat.
Let’s start off on a negative. The duck was not duck, and it was obvious. Ordering the lemongrass duck and the barbecue duck, I thought that we would have some luck (apologies for the unintended rhyme). The lemongrass duck, though cut into pieces like duck normally would, was much too chewy and almost too moist to be duck-like. Not to say that duck should be dry, it just wasn’t the right type of moisture. The barbecue duck arrived and the feeling I got from the rest of the table was a mix of disappointment and confusion; it didn’t look like barbecue duck yet it had the usual tropes like a yoghurt sauce to accompany. Again, not really barbecue-y and not nearly the right texture. So though the duck was edible and not horrible, it wasn’t a great success.
Coming in second place was the fish curry. What came to the table was something that resembled a fillet of fish with the skin on. It could have even been a fish that I hadn’t tried before if I hadn’t known it was a vegetarian dish. Unlike the duck, the fish was a little too dry for my liking. I like my fish to have a little more moisture and a little more flake. It appeared the fish was covered in sea weed to resemble skin which surprisingly added to the fishy flavour. The “skin” was slightly over charred and chewy, but was necessary to keep the overall perception of being fish.
My personal highlight was the lamb. Unlike the mock chicken and duck I had tried, the strange chewiness and odd moisture was not present. It pulled apart like lamb would; the oddly satisfying stringy-ness. Mixed with the sauce and the rice, it was a pleasant dish and left nothing much to be desired. I ate it feeling satisfied and not at all missing real lamb.
Overall thoughts? Yes, I prefer meat. But do I miss real meat when I eat mock meat? Not so much. I am open to trying more meat or dairy substitutes to see if they measure up to the real thing. But what I really want to know; if it’s not meat then what is it?