By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

WHEN confronted by an exotic meat, some people will usually say it “tastes like chicken.” A new vegetarian line by food giant San Miguel called Veega, consisting of nuggets, sausages, ground meat analogue, balls, and burger patties might make you say the same.

Veega is made of mushroom, wheat and soy (in the form of vegetable protein). Soy and mushroom provide the meat-like texture, said a San Miguel representative in an e-mail to BusinessWorld, while the mushroom and spices “provide the meaty taste.”

We’ll be the judge of that.

San Miguel sent over a pack of some of the products, including the sausages and nuggets, as well as a shepherd’s pie prepared by the San Miguel Culinary Center.

The nuggets were fried for about two to three minutes, and came out, well, looking like nuggets. Oddly enough, it has a texture firmer and more solid than actual chicken nuggets, closer to the fancy chicken cutlets found in nice restaurants. It’s not quite chicken, because there’s a nutty aftertaste to it that we don’t think appears quite often in a real chicken. It’s also a bit more dry, because chicken nuggets can be a lot juicier. Still, because it looks like it, kind of feels like it, and kind of tastes like it, if I didn’t tell you, you’d never know it wasn’t chicken.

As for the sausages, they approach the taste of a very light chicken frankfurter. It has a smoky-sweet aftertaste that may not be present in real meat, but the blank canvas of vegetable protein may have left more room to explore. It’s also a bit more dry and dense than a regular sausage.

As for the shepherd’s pie, the protein component had a softer, more yielding chew, and the sauce was sweetish, spicy, and satisfying.

For all of these products: if no one told you, you wouldn’t have known it wasn’t meat. The minor differences between the products and real meat (such as the lightness in flavor) don’t feel like real deterrents (some people would even prefer them, I would suppose), and are a small price to pay for allowing an animal to walk freely — for at least one more day.

San Miguel says that the protein content of Veega products is comparable to meat. It is also high in fiber and has no added preservatives, said the San Miguel representative. A press release points out that a 100 gm serving of the nuggets provides protein equivalent to a cup of milk or two eggs, while a serving of the sausages provides protein equivalent to a 170 gm tub of yogurt or 30 gm of nuts. Fair warning though: it’s meat-free and vegetarian, but it is not vegan. In order to get the taste and texture of Veega as close as possible to the “real thing,” the company uses egg whites.

San Miguel still stands as one of the biggest companies dealing in meat, from its fresh meats through Magnolia and Monterey, to the canned corned beef, sausages, and luncheon meats in Purefoods. Asked why a conglomerate as big as that would join the meat-free game, San Miguel noted that people today are looking for healthier and more sustainable choices of food, particularly for protein options. It noted that in the past, the available products on the market were not easily accessible, were too expensive, or were not suited for the Pinoy taste.

Veega, the company claims, answers the consumers’ need for a plant-based protein alternative that is developed specifically for the Filipino taste. Veega comes in ball, minced, nugget, patty, and sausage form. The choice of coming up with the sausage, nuggets, and burger patties was due to the fact that these are some of the most popular quick meals for Filipinos, said the company. The giniling (ground meat) and balls forms, meanwhile, are products that can easily be used in many different recipes.

Plant-based diets have usually been limited to a small number of people who reject meat for various reasons: either due to their health or their ethics. Many more might like to try a life with less meat, but matters of convenience and availability might affect their choices. The entry of a conglomerate might help in mainstreaming the culture, particularly for those who don’t have the time to source and cook meat-free food.

Convenience is addressed by the fact that Veega is fully cooked already and can be further cooked straight from the freezer with no need to thaw out the products. In addition to that, Veega is now available at all leading supermarkets, in the frozen food section, with prices ranging from P99 to P120 for a two serving pack. It will soon be available at the San Miguel online store, The Mall.

It should also be noted that the products have a long shelf-life: a press release says they can stay in the freezer for up to eight months.

For a smaller company also dealing with meat that isn’t meat, check out BusinessWorld’s story: