In search of New Zealand’s Kentucky Fried Pea-Protein

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A brief yet important investigation into whether KFC will be bringing deep-fried pea-protein-based agglomerations of meat-like substances to the eager New Zealand public any time soon.

It was the Tuesday morning. Stuff’s Auckland news director went around the table, and the other reporters revealed their hot tips: John Tamihere was promising that if elected mayor he’d give a gold bar to every newborn (or something like that).

There was possibly something about Lime scooters.

Non-meat "chicken" is being trialled at a store in the US. So what about New Zealand's vegan fast-food addicts?

STUFF

Non-meat “chicken” is being trialled at a store in the US. So what about New Zealand’s vegan fast-food addicts?

Someone famous had had their name suppressed so we couldn’t do much of a story about that, and someone not very famous had also had their name suppressed, which was even worse.

And of course there were loads of genuinely newsworthy things that you will be able to read about here in the fullness of time.

I had no hot tips of my own to offer up, but I did have Twitter open on my laptop, so by the time my name was called, I was newly aware that Donald Trump was a terrible human being, that the Amazon rainforest was burning, and that in Atlanta, Georgia, the junk-food behemoth KFC was, that very day, offering customers buckets of non-chicken protein lumps (though they phrased it differently):

 

This was Twitter, so the replies included drivel like this:

 

I was intrigued. Because New Zealand loves KFC stories. There have been many about the unhealthily calorific Double Down; there were several about how its workers were striking for better wages; there was this about an unlikely car accident at a KFC drive-through; and the one about the campaign for halal KFC.

Important KFC-related news #113: they were selling a kind of burger where the buns were actually pieces of chicken!

Dan Kremer

Important KFC-related news #113: they were selling a kind of burger where the buns were actually pieces of chicken!

Important KFC-related news #72: striking workers outside a Palmerston North branch of KFC in May.

PAUL MITCHELL/STUFF

Important KFC-related news #72: striking workers outside a Palmerston North branch of KFC in May.

(To be fair, the weirdest and thus best KFC stories mostly originate overseas, such as this one about a deep-fried “rat” that actually wasn’t, a rose-flavoured chicken burger KFC trialled in China, and the Australian KFC that’s supposedly trying for a Michelin star.)

Anyway, surely New Zealanders – and especially vegetarian and vegan New Zealanders who are keen as any carnivore to eat mysteriously-flavoured tan-coloured deep-fried protein chunks – will want to know when (and indeed if)  “Beyond Fried Chicken” will come to New Zealand. 

“Perhaps,” I said diffidently, “someone could find out.”

Fine, said the news director. You go find out, then we’ll put it on the internet.

Actual chicken legs, made out of the legs of chicken.

123RF

Actual chicken legs, made out of the legs of chicken.

I rang the Auckland HQ of Restaurant Brands. They gave the number of a man at a PR company. I rang that and the man gave me an email address. I compiled a series of probing questions and sent them to that email address, and soon received a reply from a woman at the same PR company. I’ll get to the details of what she told me later in the story, mostly to build suspense.

In the olden days, when I had a girlfriend who was vegan, I sampled vegetarian “bacon”, textured-soy-protein mince and fungus-based Quorn products, and I can report that they all tasted pretty vile. If I wanted a meal that’s free of dead animals, give me a nut roast and some actual real vegetables any day.

Yellow peas: grind them up and extract the protein, fiddle with the flavour and texture in just the right way, and hey presto – stuff that tastes remarkably like beef or chicken.

123RF

Yellow peas: grind them up and extract the protein, fiddle with the flavour and texture in just the right way, and hey presto – stuff that tastes remarkably like beef or chicken.

But recently, more convincing fake meat technologies have come along, and business is booming. Beyond Meat – the US company whose non-chicken is the central ingredient of those Atlanta KFC 12-piece buckets – has a market value of around $15 billion. Its major rival Impossible Foods was recently valued at over $3 billion.

Beyond Meat’s products are mostly made of water, pea protein isolate, canola oil and coconut oil, and much smaller amounts of 20-odd other ingredients to get the flavour right. Impossible Foods contain something called “heme” which is made using a genetically modified yeast and behaves a bit like blood. 

The target market for these fancier, higher-tech, more-convincing non-meats includes proper vegans and vegetarians who miss the flavour but know that meat is murder, but also “flexitarians” – a term that seems to mean precisely nothing, given that you can eat anything you like depending on the instantaneous state of your conscience. 

Beyond Meat's fake-meat burger patties are already turning up in Burger Fuel, Lord of the Fries and Hell Pizza.

Ken Wilson Meats

Beyond Meat’s fake-meat burger patties are already turning up in Burger Fuel, Lord of the Fries and Hell Pizza.

In New Zealand, you can already get Beyond Meat burgers from Lord of the Fries and Burger Fuel, and Hell Pizza stirred up a headline-friendly scandal when they smuggled Beyond Meat patties onto a “medium-rare burger patty” without telling customers. In the US, Carl’s Jr sell burgers containing Beyond Meat patties, but not yet in New Zealand. Boutique stores and some supermarkets in New Zealand sell Beyond Meat patties that you can cook for yourself. 

And based on a brief conversation with a passing office vegan, I can report that there is at least one Aotearoan who’d like to see KFC hop on the plant-products-that-taste-quite-a-lot-like-meat bandwagon (though she’d read reports that KFC were actually frying everything in the same oil, which sort of messes up the vegan thing).

In the US, Carl's Jr are offering Beyond Meat patties in their burgers, but when I checked a minute ago, the only vegetarian burger on the New Zealand Carl's Jr website was something containing kumara, potato, sundried tomato and spinach.

Supplied

In the US, Carl’s Jr are offering Beyond Meat patties in their burgers, but when I checked a minute ago, the only vegetarian burger on the New Zealand Carl’s Jr website was something containing kumara, potato, sundried tomato and spinach.

Which brings us to the really important part of this story. What did KFC say when I asked them about the chances of non-chicken chicken turning up soon in one of their oil-drenched buckets of salty calories? 

The answer, just the one sentence, was to be attributed to “KFC Spokesperson”, and it went like this:

“At this time, we aren’t testing or planning to offer vegan substitute for our finger lickin’ good chicken in New Zealand.”

So now you know.

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