I'm a hardcore carnivore and I tried Singapore's first plant-based yakiniku — here's how I feel about it

PHOTO: AsiaOne/ Melissa Teo

One thing that I will probably never be able to bring myself to do is become vegan or vegetarian.

As a self-proclaimed carnivore, it took me years to start incorporating fruits and vegetables into my diet. Despite overcoming that hurdle, I still naturally find myself gravitating towards meat — a meal just feels incomplete without it.

Recently, plant-based meats have become the in-thing and an increasing number of people have made the switch to integrate it more into their daily lives. 

While I've tried my fair share of plant-based meats to see what the hype was all about and while I've come across a few mention-worthy options, none of them have ever managed to convince me to make such a huge lifestyle change.

Nevertheless, when I heard that Japanese chain Aburi-EN was launching a plant-based yakiniku (Japanese-style grilled meat), I was curious to see if this would change my mind.

I've tried plant-based patties and minced 'beef' before, but yakiniku? Never. In fact, this is the first time plant-based yakiniku have been brought into Singapore, according to Aburi-EN.  

In collaboration with Next Meats , a Japanese alternative meat start-up, Aburi-EN has released two new limited-edition offerings — the Kalbi Don set ($13.80) and Stamina Teishoku ($15.80).

These are made with Next Meat's karubi (boneless short rib) which are crafted out of soybean proteins without the use of chemical additives or animal ingredients. It is also said to contain fewer calories, double the proteins and one-tenth of the fat as compared to its meat counterparts, promising diners a yakiniku experience minus the guilt.

As wholesome as this sounds, did the plant-based yakiniku live up to the taste test? 

Taste test time

I have to admit that appearance-wise, the two dishes were definitely appealing. At first glance, one may not realise they were actually made with plant-based meat.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/ Melissa Teo

Perched carefully atop a bed of Japanese steamed rice and paired with a side of pickles and miso soup, the kalbi (short ribs) from the Kalbi Don set had a beautiful glaze and, in all honesty, its texture looked pretty similar to that of real meat.

I was anticipating it to taste slightly similar to that of actual yakiniku beef. Unfortunately, taste-wise, I was left disappointed.

Admittedly, using soy products to imitate the exact flavour and mouthfeel of meat is no mean feat and one cannot expect an exact replication. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne/ Melissa Teo

While the special sweet sauce used to glaze the protein was reminiscent of regular yakiniku, overall, it was quite similar to your typical soy-based meat alternatives on the market.

Don't get me wrong — it wasn't a bad dish and I wouldn't mind eating it again. But if you're looking for something with a similar flavour and texture to actual yakiniku, you're looking in the wrong place.

PHOTO: AsiaOne/ Melissa Teo

The second dish, the Stamina Teishoku, features kalbi stir-fried with an assortment of other vegetables and finished off with a bright orange egg that is apparently specially imported from Okinawa. It also comes with a bowl of white Japanese rice, pickles, salad and miso soup. 

Only halfway through the meal did it hit me — vegans can't consume eggs, so why was there one on top of the otherwise plant-based dish? While I found this baffling, I have to admit, it did add a nice creamy element and I didn't mind it. However, if you're a vegan or vegetarian who can't consume eggs, it's definitely something to take note of. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne/ Melissa Teo

Similar to the plant-based meat from the Kalbi Don Set, the kalbi here had the taste and texture of your typical soy-based meat product. Admittedly, for this dish, the accompanying vegetables did help to make it less obvious. 

Final thoughts

Overall, if you're a carnivore-turned-vegan who misses yakiniku, this is a good option for you. While it may not feel like you're eating actual yakiniku, this is the next best alternative out there and the sweet sauce add to the illusion.

Unfortunately, If you're a meat-lover who is anticipating a perfect replication, be forewarned that the two dishes here are not what you are looking for. However, I still feel that it is worth a try.  At the end of the day, these were still really good dishes — you just need to keep your expectations realistic to avoid disappointment.

Where to eat: The plant-based yakiniku dishes are available at all Aburi-EN outlets from April to July 2021

melissateo@asiaone.com