Jackfruit is the plant-based protein of choice for Singaporean start-up as global demand for meat alternatives continues to rise

a pan filled with meat and vegetables on a plate: Karana uses every part of the jackfruit to make its meat substitutes – whole plant meat shreds and mince. They can be used as filling in baos (steamed buns), in stir-fries or in dumplings. Photo: K.Y. Cheng © SCMP Karana uses every part of the jackfruit to make its meat substitutes – whole plant meat shreds and mince. They can be used as filling in baos (steamed buns), in stir-fries or in dumplings. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Karana, a Singapore-based food start-up, is feeding the ever-increasing demand for plant-based proteins with a product that uses the tropical jackfruit.

It has partnered with two of Hong Kong's best known chefs to introduce its brand to city diners; it expects to have products available for Hong Kong home cooks by the end of the year.

Karana uses only jackfruit, oil, salt and natural flavourings to make its whole plant meat shreds and mince. It sources jackfruit in Sri Lanka, where they are partly processed before final processing in Singapore.

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a person posing for the camera: Blair Crichton is a co-founder of Karana. Photo: K.Y. Cheng © Provided by South China Morning Post Blair Crichton is a co-founder of Karana. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

"Most of the plant-based products out there are made using heavily processed commodity crops like pea, soy and wheat, and instead we are turning to the biodiversity that exists in nature," co-founder Blair Crichton, 35, explains. "Currently, we only consume something like 300 out of 300,000 edible plant species, and 12 crops make up 75 per cent of what we eat, so there's this huge untapped resource out there in nature."

Retail sales of plant-based meats are worth US$7 billion and growing by double digits every year.

According to a Reuters report, Impossible Foods, a major producer of plant-based meats, is in discussions about an initial public offering within the next 12 months that could be worth US$10 billion; its rival Beyond Meat was publicly listed in 2019. OmniPork Luncheons from another company, Green Monday, have been available in McDonald's and McCafe outlets in Hong Kong and Macau since October 2020, and its microwaveable meals can be found in 7-Eleven convenience stores.

A green revolution: the rise of plant-based 'meat' in Hong Kong

Mando-pop star Wang Leehom is a Green Monday investor, and promotes the plant-based food brand alongside fellow ambassadors James Cameron, the Hollywood director, and musician Paul McCartney's daughter, Mary McCartney.

Crichton and Karana co-founder Dan Riegler chose to focus on jackfruit because of its taste and its sustainability. Jackfruit trees are usually grown to provide shade for tea and spice plants, and their fruit remains underused.

"It's actually the highest yielding tree fruit in the world, so there's an abundance of it," says Crichton. "It's grown naturally and doesn't need pesticides. Currently, 60 per cent of the world's jackfruit crop goes to waste - there's a lot of it but not enough demand, so we're trying to address that issue and take some of that, and give some income streams to small farmers we work with and promote biodiversity."

a plate of food on a table: Dishes made using Karana's whole plant meat shreds and mince. Photo: K.Y. Cheng © Provided by South China Morning Post Dishes made using Karana's whole plant meat shreds and mince. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Karana harvests the jackfruit before they ripen. Everything inside is used once the outer layer is removed, even the soft seeds and fibrous interior - which has the texture of pulled pork. Karana's products work as filling in bao (steamed buns), in stir-fries or minced in dumplings.

"We're not the first to use jackfruit as a meat replacement, but the products that are out there don't meet consumer expectations around the tasting experience," says Crichton. "That's probably why only vegans eat it. I'm a vegan myself and we're a lot more forgiving of things than a flexitarian might necessarily be."

Karana's products are versatile and easy for home cooks and chefs to use. For the Singapore launch, they were used with mushrooms in potstickers at fusion restaurant Butcher Boy, in a sloppy joe at bar Jomo, and in a jackfruit rillette at French restaurant Atout.

A vegetarian at the age of four, now he's a plant-based meat entrepreneur

In Hong Kong, chef Shane Osborn of Arcane used Karana jackfruit in mapo tofu on its Earth Day menu in April, while Manav Tuli, of Indian restaurant Chaat in the Rosewood hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, will use Karana's jackfruit instead of lamb in his signature samosas. Karana's products will also feature in dishes at Sip Song by Maximal Concepts; Emerald in Central; all Beef & Liberty outlets; all Elephant Grounds outlets; Cantonese restaurant Cheung Kung Koon in Causeway Bay; and Deliveroo's takeaway kitchen Hot N' Meen.

"I did some trials with Impossible, Beyond and Karana," Tuli says. "The way we cook Indian food, I found with Impossible that it had a slightly bitter taste. But with Karana, I cooked it the same way and it was fine.

"At home in India, my mother is completely vegetarian. If my father feels like eating non-vegetarian 'meat', he will eat jackfruit. We treat unripe jackfruit as a meat substitute. It works well in a vegetarian biryani. Since childhood, I have eaten unripe jackfruit."

a bowl of food sitting on top of a pan on a stove: Pan-fried dumplings prepared with Karana's whole plant meat shreds. Photo: K.Y. Cheng © Provided by South China Morning Post Pan-fried dumplings prepared with Karana's whole plant meat shreds. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Tuli says all his guests at Chaat love lamb samosas and, to begin with, he will only serve Karana's jackfruit-based samosas to his regulars. He won't tell them what's in the samosas until after they have eaten, to gauge their reaction.

"I did a trial in-house and the staff all wondered why I was serving this to them. They asked if I changed the spice or the meat. They said, 'We like it but there's something different' and they couldn't say exactly what."

Crichton became a vegan in 2016 after watching Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, a 2014 documentary. He left a career at HSBC, an Asian-focused bank, to go to business school in the United States, and promised himself that he would work on climate change after graduation. While studying, he worked for Impossible Foods in strategy and business development, and on its expansion to Asia.

a close up of a fruit tree: A jackfruit lying on a jungle floor. Sixty per cent of jackfruit go to waste, Crichton says. Photo: Getty Images © Provided by South China Morning Post A jackfruit lying on a jungle floor. Sixty per cent of jackfruit go to waste, Crichton says. Photo: Getty Images

"It's successful and they have a fantastic product, but at the back of my mind I was thinking (that) in Asia we eat pork and chicken; really there is a lot of opportunity to do something more localised," he recalls. "At that time, there wasn't really anything yet, Omnipork hadn't started and so it was something that was there, fermenting in my brain."

In 2018, Crichton met Riegler at a conference in the US. Riegler had already started Karana and was looking for a co-founder for the start-up.

The word karana comes from Sanskrit, the primary sacred language of Hinduism. "In Bali, it is used in a phrase, 'to achieve balance between man and nature', and in Hindi it means 'to take action or to do'," explains Crichton. "Both tie really nicely with what we're about, which is about encouraging people to take action about better food choices to respect nature and to achieve a better balance with nature."

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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Jackfruit is the plant-based protein of choice for Singaporean start-up as global demand for meat alternatives continues to rise