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March 6, 2023
This Fake Meat Is the Real Deal

In Fake Meat, Isa Chandra Moskowitz unleashes the power of wheat gluten and lentils to DIY the deli counter and beyond

Even before it was big business—before Impossible Foods’ bleeding burgers, before Beyond Meat teamed up with KFC—people had strong feelings about fake meat. Vegetables everyone can get behind, but fake meat? Vegans and carnivores alike tend to dismiss it as uncanny, unhealthy, unnatural, an annoying bait and switch. “Yes, of course, tofu and seitan and tempeh have long, robust traditions,” everyone will acknowledge, “but do you really have to pretend your vital wheat gluten is a hot dog?” 

“Yes,” says Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who has been a vegan comfort food evangelist ever since her show The Post Punk Kitchen first aired on Brooklyn public access television in 2002. Her cookbooks have always featured unapologetic takes on classically carnivorous recipes: seitan stroganoff, chickpea “tuna” salad, tempeh meatballs. But her latest goes one step further: Fake Meat: Real Food for Vegan Appetites is 320 pages dedicated to the project of DIY fake meat. This is a book about hot pastrami sandwiches and Buffalo wings and kielbasa and cabbage in a skillet, boeuf bourguignon and pork chops with apple sauce, all made from wheat gluten and chickpea flour and tofu and lentils. “If I combine tofu, seitan, and tempeh in one recipe, I’m really happy,” she says, brightly. It is daunting (making your own hot dogs?). It is invigorating (making your own hot dogs!). It is also—in a way fake meats never get credit for—deeply playful. It’s meat! But not. 

On the heels of the book’s launch, I called Moskowitz to talk about the meaning and purpose of fake meat, the golden age of vegan dining, and the time she almost invented aquafaba.

I want to start by defining our terms: What is “fake meat”?
I think of it in two ways. One is literally trying to create something that tricks people into thinking it’s meat—that’s things like cheesesteaks or chicken nuggets. And then the other way is symbolically, which is usually more vegetable focused. There’s a recipe for root marrow in the book, which nobody’s going to think is meat, but it looks like a bone with marrow in it. The parsnip lobster roll looks like a lobster roll, and it does taste somewhat like it—the reason it even came about is because I was making a parsnip-potato salad and realized it brought to mind a lobster roll—but it’s not like, “This is lobster.” I was a little like, “Oh, should I choose one approach or the other?” But I think both are fun and useful.

Do you still remember what meat tastes like?
I do, for some reason. I know it’s been so long—I haven’t had it since I was a teenager—but I do. And I must remember, because when people taste my food and think it’s meat, there must be some olfactory memory in there. Just like when you listen to an old song, and you’re transported right back to who you were when it came out. 

I feel like there’s a lot of criticism of even the concept of fake meat, coming from both meat eaters and vegans—this idea that vegans should just eat vegetables and beans and get over it. You know, just go roast some carrots.
I hear that all the time.

And one thing I really like about this book is that it makes that case that, no, this stuff has a purpose.
That’s kind of why I named it “Fake Meat,” to hopefully move the discourse a little bit past that. Not that it really will. But the way I think about it is just how I thought about it when I went vegetarian and then vegan as a teenager. It wasn’t even a question in my mind what I was going to eat. It was like, “I’m just going to eat what I always eat, except now it’s going to be vegan.” So if I’d been eating tuna fish sandwiches, I was going to continue to do that, just vegan. It wasn’t guided by some ideology. I was 15 or 16—it’s just what naturally happened for me. I don’t think there’s any valid criticism of mimicking meat. I don’t know what they think the argument is—just don’t try to copy it and eat something else? But why? Why not try and copy it?

It’s fun and creative. And like I say in the introduction, food evolves. It’s not the Ten Commandments or whatever. It’s not stagnant. There’s no reason why, in 100 years, we won’t hear the word “burger” and just think of a veggie burger. Food culture could get to the point where somebody says “bacon” and, in 100 years, someone will automatically think, “Oh, smoked mushrooms.” I’m not saying that definitely will happen, but that’s kind of the point of taking a recipe and making it vegan and passing it along.

You make this comment in the book about the ’90s being the golden age of veganism, which, on the surface, is sort of counterintuitive: there are so many more options now! But also, I wasn’t a vegan in New York in the ’90s. What did I miss?
Well, I’m kind of being funny when I say the “golden age of veganism,” but it’s also true that there were just a lot of vegan restaurants, and places that had vegan food made the food. It wasn’t all, like, supermarket cheese products, you know what I mean? People made sauces and made veggie burgers—it just seemed like more cooking in the ’90s. If you went to a vegan restaurant in the ’90s, they were, like, making a sauce. The veggie burgers weren’t all corporate patties; they were making a veggie burger. The vegan restaurants were making seitan, doing stuff with tempeh, doing stuff with tofu. You could get scrambled tofu—it’s really kind of hard to find now. People will just do a corporate fake egg—which is cool; I’m glad these things exist. I have fake chicken from the store in my fridge most times. But I also do miss home cooking, even restaurant cooking.

It does seem like there’s been some real innovation in vegan cooking, though. What have you seen change since you started?
I think, broadly, people are using more ingredients to infuse more flavor than they were a few decades ago. Like miso—obviously, I’ve always cooked with miso, but people are using it in different ways. People really started using cashews a lot for creaminess, which didn’t necessarily happen that much a decade ago, and especially not two decades ago. And then there are just things people figured out, like aquafaba—the chickpea water that’s like egg whites? That did not exist. It’s funny, because I’ve always used the chickpea juice in hummus, and I knew that it made it fluffier. I’m always like, “I could have invented aquafaba if I’d just used my brain.”

Some of the recipes in the book are a little intimidating. They’re multistep. They need specialty ingredients—beet powder, kelp powder, pea protein. They’re not sheet pan dinners, is what I’m saying.
Not everything contains something like that. I did try to make it a nice balance. I think most people have access to tempeh and tofu. There’s more and more access to things like jackfruit and vital wheat gluten. But I didn’t want to limit it. It’s definitely a book for people who look at cooking as a fun to thing to do, not a tedious chore. It’s not a fast and easy cookbook or a shortcut cookbook. 

My last cookbook was aimed at quick weeknight meals, nothing that would intimidate anybody. But I think we should leave room for the ambitious recipe. Like the Madame Beefington [a lentil-and-seitan-based Beef Wellington]—why not spend a weekend making this showstopper? I mean, that’s fun. I’m not going to say, “Oh, you can have this Beef Wellington in 20 minutes.” Like, no. Here’s something that’s going to take you the weekend, and you’re never going to forget it, and hopefully you’ll have fun making it. 

Rachel Sugar

Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.