by Marianne Bray
MACAU, Nov 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It's Friday afternoon at the Venetian Macao hotel's Portofino restaurant, and on the terrace a handful of chefs in white uniforms are preparing the casino hub's famous pork chop bun for waiting guests.
But today, the bun has a difference. As guests dive in, they're biting not into pork but into a vegan pattie created to mimic pork's taste and feel.
In a region where pork is king - it is the favoured meat in most dishes - switching diets to a tasty vegetable substitute could be a major way to curb climate change, experts say.
But will "Omnipork" pass the taste test?
"The appearance and texture is the same, I can't tell the difference," said Suki Chu, who runs a Facebook cooking group called 'Be Jealous by JM', and is there with her husband and 11-year-old son.
Eric Tang, who works in customer services at a telecom company, agrees the pattie looks like minced pork, but notices a subtle difference in the taste.
It doesn't have "the gamey flavour of real pork," he said.
A plant-protein made from peas, soy, shiitake mushroom and rice, Omnipork is the latest venture by Hong Kong-based David Yeung, whose social enterprise Green Monday aims to curb climate change, shore up food global food security and improve public health.
A vegetarian for 18 years, Yeung started Green Monday to persuade diners to take one day a week off meat - a movement that has spread to 30 countries. Now another venture, Right Treat, has created Omnipork for the Asian palate.
While beef and chicken is popular in the West, and U.S. foodtech firms like Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger have created plant-based meat alternatives, pork has been overlooked, Yeung says.
But pork is the most consumed meat globally, the Worldwatch Institute says, and is in high demand in Asia, particularly China.
"Chinese people use pork in everything," Yeung said. Indeed, 65 percent of all meat consumed in China is pork. And China's 1.4 billion people eat it in soups, dumplings, stir-fries and pork buns.
Omnipork - designed to mimic minced pork - aims to direct an emerging middle class away from meat as a staple.
With rising incomes, Asia's meat consumption is expected to grow by a third by 2030, according to Asia Research and Engagement (ARE), an independent consulting firm on environmental, social and governance risks.
Land the size of India will be required by 2050 to satisfy this demand, ARE said. Producing pork also takes vast amounts of water and food crops, and generates huge waste and methane emissions.
Meat and seafood production account for 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Asia, according to a 2018 report written for Asian investment firm CLSA.
Meat health and safety is also a concern in Asia, with tainted food scandals, antibiotics and hormone use, and the African Swine Fever taking a toll, Yeung said.
Even China's government in 2016 advised its citizens to cut the amount of meat they eat each day.
This makes the meat industry ripe for disruption, Yeung said. But shifting diets in a country as huge as China will take time, so Yeung has launched Omnipork in the foodie and meat capital of the world, Hong Kong.
"If we can get the movement viral very quickly in a dense city like Hong Kong, it can create a domino effect across the region," he said.
In Hong Kong, Omnipork is now served at 42 restaurant outlets and, after a recent launch in Singapore, 80 outlets there are serving it as well.
Sands Resorts Macao, who run the Venetian and four other resorts in this former Portuguese colony, offers Omnipork to 28,000 workers. But workers liked it so much managers decided to offer it in 14 restaurants as well.
"We challenged our chefs to re-intrepret what they were already cooking," said Tom Connolly, senior vice president of food and beverage at Sands China.
The dishes were tested on regular guests and "everybody thought it tasted like pork," Connolly said. With more guests asking for vegan and vegetarian fare, he believes it's now time to offer more meat-free options.
Sands Chef Alen Chow, who created the Omnipork pork chop bun, said he tried mushroom and tofu, but roughly-chopped chestnut "was the best partner for Omnipork."
$6 BILLION MARKET?
But how likely are consumers to switch en masse? Global sales of plant-based meat products have risen an average of 8 percent each year since 2010, according to Persistence Market Research (PMR).
The market for such products is expected to reach more than $6 billion a year by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets, a market research firm.
Yeung says he has seen Beyond Meat sales rise fourfold in one year and vegan cheese Daiya has tripled sales this year.
"If it tastes good, and consumers can access it, and feel like it's not super expensive, then they're going to eat it," said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, an American food thinktank.
The switch could have a big environmental impact. Oxford Martin School researchers said in 2016 that a global switch to diets relying less on meat could slash greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, avoid climate-related damages of $1.5 trillion and save up to 8 million lives by 2050.
But challenges remain. The retail price of Omnipork is 43 Hong Kong dollars for 230g. That's cheaper than organic pork and comparable to imported pork but more expensive than the 27 Hong Kong dollars for 300g of pork at local markets in Hong Kong.
Meat is also seen as a festive and cultural food, so it may be hard to convince many people in China to give it up. But Yeung is optimistic.
The new generation of plant-based foods is nutritious, he said. Omnipork is "cruelty-free," has no antibiotics or hormones and is lower in saturated fat and calories than real pork, while offering more fiber, calcium and iron, he said.
Yeung's plan in 2019 is to partner with Chinese hotels and restaurants as well as food service companies that cater to Fortune 500 companies and big-tech cafeterias.
He'll also try online sites and e-commerce channels.
But Tang, for one, said his traditional mother from Shanghai may take some convincing.
"I'm going to try cooking a Shanghainese dish for her, but I'm not telling her what's inside," said the customer services agent.