• Poultry rewards? We put Pho’s menu revamp vegan ‘chicken’ to the test

Poultry rewards? We put Pho’s menu revamp vegan ‘chicken’ to the test

10 January 2020 by Neil Sowerby

‘SEITAN, get thee behind me.’ We’ve used that warning before about the ubiquitous wheat gluten that gives vegans a meat substitute in their mouth – in texture if not taste. While it’s possible to make your own by rinsing wheat dough we’ve never tried. Just as we always buy our pulled pork-alike jackfruit in tins.

As we all go plant-based potty this January the market for ‘vegan steak bakes’ shows that, 35 years after Quorn was developed from a fungus in Leicestershire, we Brits are still happier with veggie or vegan products aping meat. Mark though – the Quest for life beyond Quorn has become a heap more sophisticated.

Take THIS™ Isn’t Chicken, created by the UK-based plant-based innovators THIS. In a tie-in with Pho, the Vietnamese street food brand this high protein ‘imitation’ features in 12 new dishes, taking the restaurant’s vegan offering from 25 per cent to 40 per cent.

ToM has always valued the existing veggie alternatives at Manchester’s Corn Exchange branch, one of 29 nationwide. If you asked us to choose between the broths behind meat-free version of Vietnamese national soup pho and Japanese staple ramen pho would always be the winner.

So we couldn’t resist checking if the attempt to replace chicken across a range of Vietnamese dishes came off. Plus would “prawn-less” vegan prawn crackers work? Couldn’t tell the difference on that count, as it happened. But the ‘chicken’?

Pho co-founder Juliette Wall is confident: “Our menu has been more than a quarter vegan for years now, and as we started to test new plant-based products to enhance our offer for ‘Veganuary’ we were blown away by THIS. It tastes delicious and works in so many of our dishes – we think our customers are going to love it (and won’t even miss chicken!)”. 

Isolated, a chunk THIS™ Isn’t Chicken is a grey alien creature; chewed, its texture is not unpleasant; does the taste in any way recall that of a properly raised free range bird? No way.

We take on board that, made out of a soy beans and peas, it packs way more protein than lentils, tofu, seitan, tempeh, most cuts of meat and pretty much all vegetables; it’s fortified with iron and vitamin B12; is obviously antibiotic and GMO free; and has minimal CO2 emissions in production in comparison with meat.

But in most of the dishes we tried it compromised the joyous flavours of one of the world’s great cuisines, ultimately diminishing the spice and herb influence. Would we have recognised it wasn’t the real thing if we hadn’t been told. Maybe not at first in the £10.25 ‘spicy green pho, packed with vivid morning glory, green beans, pak choi, Thai basil and fresh lime.

It added little to a crisp, fresh rice bowl (£9.25), broken rice topped with radish, chillies, cucumber and pickles, but it was our favourite dish of the dinner. Of two salads we also tried the green papaya (featuring those prawnless prawn crackers and a lovely peanut sauce) was more attractive than the THIS™ Isn’t Chicken salad, rescued by a chilli ginger salad.

Created by two guys who once ran beef burger chain Chosen Bun, the innovative product recently won a coveted PETA award for “Best Vegan Chicken”. It’s certainly not a beauty contest but it is answering a need. One we really don’t understand. Ditto Gregg’s and their vegan steak bakes.

Perhaps it’s all just a transitional phase in the headlong rush to a plant-based future when surely veg and pulse and grain will be all we need, not imitation meat in our quest for more ethical eating. 

Meanwhile at Pho the choice is yours. It wouldn't be mine. Cannily their menu options mean that across most dishes This Doesn’t Have To Be THIS™ Isn’t Chicken. Below is a picture of a real chicken salad. Highly recommended. 

Pho, The Corn Exchange, 37 Hanging Ditch, Manchester M4 3TR.