When Bill Gates tasted plant-based chicken—made from pea protein—for the first time, he said “it had the taste and texture of real chicken” and described it as “the future of food.” As more consumers look to eat more healthy and sustainable meals—or simply to add more variety to their diets—pioneering companies are seeing strong sales for an ever-increasing range of plant-based innovations that look and taste like their animal-based counterparts. Almond milk sales, for example, have surged more than 250 percent as cow’s milk sales have shrunk by nearly $1 billion. Plant-based meat sales are growing at twice the rate of processed meats.
But it turns out that these modern marvels that comprise this so-called “future of food” are taking pages from our ancient culinary past.
As far back as 1301, recipes for making “mock lung sausage” and “mock eel” from wheat gluten appeared in the Chinese encyclopedia, The Essential Arts for Family Living.
A century later, in the West, many Christians—abstaining from animal foods during Lent but still craving the experience of eating their old standbys—were crafting their own elaborate plant-based dishes to mimic the taste, texture, color, and even shape of animal-based foods.
An Austrian cookbook written around 1450 includes several recipes in which peas and grains are used to make plant-based meats—like “Pepper Roast,” a pea-based dish made to resemble a rabbit’s head.
“If you wish to prepare pepper roast from peas,” the recipe instructs, “cook the peas but do not let them get too soft. Mix them with burned pepperbread, strain them through a cloth, grind gingerbread and bread into the mixture, and take the burned pepperbread, grind it as finely as possible, add it to the mixture so as to blacken it.” Then you add fried onions with spices and finally, to finish the dish, you make it into a “hard bread in the shape of a hare’s head.”
Using pea protein to create a hardy, meat-like-but-meat-free dish that even looks like its animal-based counterpart? It sounds a lot like the Beyond Meat brand of plant-based chicken with which Bill Gates was so taken. Using wheat gluten to make plant-based meats, as the 14th-century Chinese chefs did? That’s akin to products from Sweet Earth Foods, Yves, Lightlife, Boca, Morningstar Farms, and the almost innumerable other brands of plant-based meats available today.
Today, we have all manner of mayos, dressings and sauces and cookies and cakes made with plant-based proteins that perform eggs’ job emulsifying and binding. We even have products like Follow Your Heart’s Vegan Egg (made from algal flour) and JUST’s JUST Egg (a liquid blend of bean protein), which scramble and bake just like the real thing.
Six-hundred years ago, we had Eyroun in Lentyn—translated as “Eggs in Lent.” Taken from an Old English cookbook written in 1430, Eyroun in Lentyn involves filling an emptied eggshell with a blend of nuts and sugar to create a white egg-like substance. The recipe even calls for adding a dash of saffron in the center for a splash of yellow, to create a mock yolk. Then “set it in the fire and roast it, and serve forth.” Diners would crack open the eggshell and scoop out its roasted innards as if eating a hardboiled egg.
Dairy-free cheeses made from nuts are all the rage today. A resourceful Italian author stumbled upon this idea about 600 years ago.
A 15th-century Italian cookbook written by an anonymous author from Naples advises how to make ricotta contraffatta—essentially by grinding up almonds with rosewater and straining it using a certain technique to create a cheese-like mixture. Then, instructs the author, “place this mixture into a mold like those carried by peddlers who cry out, ‘Ricotta! Ricotta!’” And finally, “when you have put the mixture into the mold, put it in a cool place in the evening for the following morning, then dump it out on a trencher board, not forgetting the garnish of sugar, rosewater, and candied aniseed.”
Almond ricotta garnished with sugar, rosewater, and candied aniseed? It sounds like something one might find at L.A.’s Vromage or Brooklyn’s Riverdel—uber-hip, all-vegan cheese shops—or the nut-based cheeses one can make at home through kits provided by Urban Cheesecraft. It’s similar to Kite Hill’s almond ricotta, which uses—just like in ancient times—almond milk to create a product that’ll have even the stinkiest cheesemonger crying “Ricotta! Ricotta!”
Today, we have Earth Balance’s Buttery Spread and Unilever’s new It’s Vegan spread (from the company’s I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter brand), using oils and other plant-based ingredients to create butter without the bovine. We also have European Style Cultured Vegan Butter from Miyoko’s Creamery, which uses cashews.
Five-hundred years ago we had actual European nut-based butter: butiro contraffatta—butter from almond milk instead of cow’s milk. Essentially, one would mix blanched, ground almonds with rosewater, saffron (again, for that yellow color), and sugar and “lay this mixture into a mold as if were butter.”
Through the ages, it hasn’t been enough to create products that just taste like meat or eggs or butter or cheese or even eel; people have wanted those foods to even look like the animal-based versions—to be literally cut from the same molds. Today, as we see a resurgence of these types of products in the marketplace and our own kitchens, it bears remembering that the basic concept behind them dates back millennia.
What is, however, more modern are the reasons behind many consumers’ choice to eat these foods. Sure, many Christians may still enjoy plant-based meats around Lent, and they’re still popular among Buddhists the world over. But our interest in these foods today extends beyond piety.
Conscious consumers today are worried about the impact that diets high in meat and dairy have on our own health, with a robust body of scientific evidence showing that eating more plant-based foods can help prevent and reverse many of the diseases that plague our nation—like heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
And we’re becoming more aware of the impact that mass livestock production has on the environment, with the livestock sector now one of the largest contributors to climate change and overfishing threatening to collapse global fish stocks in a matter of decades.
And animals in the food supply have it worse than ever before: egg-laying hens and mother pigs are locked in cages; chickens raised for their meat are bred to grow so fat so fast their legs buckle. That’s why in addition to consumers seeking out more plant-based foods, many who continue eating meat and eggs are making choices that at least avoid the worst factory farm systems.
It is probably not coincidental that as our awareness of the social implications of our food system has grown, so too has the quality and availability of plant-based products. The vegetarian meats available today are more appetizing (and certainly easier to prepare) than mock eel or burned pepperbread molded to look like a hare’s head; one no longer needs to fill a hollowed-out eggshell with ground almonds to enjoy the experience of eating eggs without actually eating eggs.
I will say: that medieval almond-and-rosewater ricotta does sound great, and I may make it one of these days. In the meantime, I’m glad that when I visit the market, at my fingertips are all manner of plant-based products to help me enjoy a centuries-old culinary tradition while achieving the modern goals of eating healthier, more sustainably, and more humanely.
Matthew Prescott is the author of Food Is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World and senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States.