A cheese lover dips his toe into the world of vegan cheese. (Not literally.)
I've written before in defense of "fake meat", or plant-based proteins if you prefer. But vegan "cheese" has always given me the heebie-jeebies. Even when I was on an extended vegan pizza kick, I just couldn't bring myself to eat the weird yellow semi-liquids that seemed to make up the majority of the vegan cheese options out there.
I mean, seriously, what's in that stuff?! (For context, I grew up about twenty miles from Cheddar and have some strong opinions about cheese.)
However, inspired by both environmental concerns and some crazy high cholesterol numbers, I'm currently on a mostly plant-based diet. And that's gotten me a lot less snooty, and a little more adventurous, about finding substitutes for my animal-food cravings. Lo-and-behold, I'm rethinking one of my strongest prejudices:
Vegan cheese doesn't have to be awful. And it doesn't have to be made from unpronounceable ingredients either.
Specifically, the Field Roast Grain Meat Company—the same folks whose Italian sausages I have been putting on pizza forever—have developed Chao Slices, a plant-based alternative to cheese slices. They are made primarily from coconut by a Greek cheesemaker and flavored with a fermented Taiwanese tofu product called chao.
But how do they taste? So far, I've only tried the "creamy original" flavor, which was surprisingly buttery and pleasant, with a depth of flavor I was not expecting from a plant-based cheese. It also melted in a manner not dissimilar to real cheese when I put it on one of those "bleeding" veggie burgers (more on that later!), although leave it too long and it does get a little too liquidy for my tastes. Chao Slices are also available in spicy tomato and coconut herb varieties. (At least one reviewer was less complimentary about these more adventurous flavors.)
Perhaps what I appreciate most about this product, much like Field Grain's "meat" offerings, is the fact that they are not concerned with creating exact replicas of animal foods—an exercise which always strikes me as futile. Here's how they put it:
"Field Roast is proud to make products that are real, not fake! Instead of trying to mimic traditional dairy cheese flavors like cheddar, mozzarella, or monterey jack, we have innovated new flavors that celebrate the brilliance of the plant based kingdom."
Of course, there's always going to be a valid debate to be had between buying local, artisanal cheese from grassfed cows versus a mass-produced plant-based product that's been shipped around the world, but given the environmental benefits of reducing society's industrial meat and dairy consumption, I for one am delighted to see palatable—even tasty—alternatives to processed cheese.
With even Sonic getting into the part-beef, part-veggie burger, my hope is that we can move beyond dogma to chart a course toward kinder, more environmentally responsible food and farming systems.
Decent, real-food based products like those created by companies like this may go a long way toward getting us there.