One of the most unassuming landmarks in New York’s Chinatown is a 23-year-old grocery shop with a bright green awning. Its frozen aisles are filled with chicken wings, pork belly, and spot prawns.
But these are no run-of-the-mill meats. In fact, they’re not meats at all—but rather mushrooms, soybeans, and konjac (a Japanese yam flower), all shaped and flavored to behave exactly like animal protein. In this world of Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat, plant-based meat may seem like a new phenomenon. But it’s actually a centuries-old tradition, popularized by Buddhism and Taoism, and this shop, May Wah Vegetarian Market, has long been a prime destination for those seeking impressively analogous meat substitutes.
Many Buddhists and Taoists believe in doing no harm to living things, and correspondingly follow a vegetarian diet. In several parts of East Asia, meat-based cuisines have long dominated. So, several centuries ago, many temple kitchens, whose cooks were skilled in pastries and noodles, started coming up with creative substitutions. They would mold soybeans into exact replicas of cooked duck breasts (complete with the scored skin), meld mushrooms into plump pieces of mutton, and sculpt konjac into a whole fish that flaked just like the real thing.
In Taiwan, where Buddhism and Taoism are the most commonly practiced religions, many restaurants that serve meat will automatically sell a mock meat version of every dish. “Even if you go to a 7-Eleven, the fake meat will be available, next to any meat,” says Lily Ng, the operating manager of May Wah Vegetarian Market. Her mother, Lee Mee Ng, started the market in 1995. Lee Mee and Lily immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1979, and are both Taoists. Frustrated by the lack of vegetarian options in New York, Lee Mee decided to open a shop dedicated entirely to the mock meats that she felt homesick for.
At the time, according to Lily, only one vegetarian restaurant existed in Chinatown; plant-based eating had yet to hit the cultural zeitgeist. Business was rough in the first few years. “People didn’t believe in our stuff, and thought it was weird,” says Lily. “We were giving things out for free just to convince people.” Even the local Taoist and Buddhist populations were hesitant about mock meat. “They had gotten so used to eating just vegetables in the U.S.,” explains Lily, “So they were iffy about our stuff.”
Then, as the new millennium hit, vegetarianism suddenly became trendy. PETA and other animal activist groups started reaching out to May Wah about partnerships. Around then, May Wah also launched an e-commerce store—becoming one of the first Chinese grocers in the area to do so. “We just kind of blew up,” says Lily. Soon, the shop was packed with not just Buddhists and Taoists looking to stock up on mock duck, but vegetarians of all stripes.
The Ngs work with a Taiwan-based manufacturing company called Chin Hsin Foods, which ensures that the mock meat they are getting is as good as it is back home. She has tried a few of the longstanding American brands of imitation meats, such as Morningstar Farms, but “the texture is a bit off,” Lily says. “The package looks good, but once you open it, it is just a lump.”
By contrast, at May Wah, the chicken nuggets (made with soy protein) have the exact same fibers you’ve come to expect when pulling apart a McNugget. The shrimp, made with konjac, has that familiar curvy shape, pinkish hue, and soft crunch—plus the fishy taste of shrimp, thanks to the addition of seaweed. Even the drumsticks, also made with soy protein, have a bone in them (made of wood, of course). Craving shark fin? May Wah has you covered with its plant-based gelatin version.
The storefront started as a tiny, 400-square-foot space, and has slowly expanded throughout the years to over double that size. The lime green walls match the awning, the cash registers are decorated by string lights, and the shelves are meticulously organized by product type—jerky, seafood, hams, bacons—each package adorned with a different-colored label. Interestingly, the section dedicated to tofu—the most well-known meat substitute in Asian cuisine to many—is by far the smallest.
Every year, Lily and her mother go to Taiwan to meet with Chin Hsin Foods, discuss potential new products, and test prototypes. On a recent trip, they tried out an egg yolk substitute made of soybean and tofu. “That was really, really bad,” says Lily, making a face. “The texture and taste was really weird. We were like, ‘No, this is not going to sell at all.’”
Over time, the customer base has expanded beyond just Asian customers. Lily says that the shop now works with a variety of individuals, restaurants, and grocers. One of her favorite parts of her job, she says, is seeing how creative different people get with the product. Guyanese people, she says, use May Wah’s mutton (made of mushroom) to make a version of oxtail stew, and the spot prawns to make coconut shrimp. Indians use the mock chicken to make biryani and korma. One particularly inventive customer thinly sliced the mock pork belly (the white, fatty layer is made of konjac, and the meat layer is made of soybean), smoked it, and made prosciutto.
Joel Capolongo, the co-owner of the vegan spot Strong Hearts Café, in Syracuse, uses May Wah’s products at his restaurant, as well as at the food stand he runs at the New York State Fair. “We didn’t know how vegan food was going to do at an event where people eat bacon-wrapped, deep-fried stuff,” he says, but May Wah’s vegan chicken wings, which he batter-fries and coats with barbecue and buffalo sauce, were instantly popular. “I have never had anything so similar to meat,” he says. “The taste and texture is spot on.”
As mainstream, American discourse on vegan food remains primarily dominated by white people, Lily is quick to clarify that while the store does serve a broad audience, “we are in Chinatown, so we want everything to be most convenient and recognizable to Asian communities.” This ranges from the types of products to the look of the store to the languages spoken by the staff. “Our top priority is our products, which are Asian food,” she adds.
Richard Lau, who owns Panda Garden in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, heard of May Wah through a friend. When he sold a version of General Tso’s Chicken made with May Wah’s textured soybean-based mock chicken, the dish was so popular with customers that he created an entire vegetarian menu centered around the market’s mock meats. He claims that the meat-free menu at one point accounted for 30 percent of all sales at the restaurant. “I’m not even a vegetarian, but the taste is very good, pretty healthy, and so close to real meat,” he says.
As vegan food only grows more popular, business at May Wah has been steady, says Lily, and the shop continues to introduce new products. The Ngs are working on rolling out more gluten-free items, made with mushrooms and konjac instead of soybeans, to keep up with current trends. You can now buy mock barbecue ribs, scallops, and soon, crab cakes, at the store.
The Ngs don’t feel threatened by forces such as the Impossible Burger and other Silicon Valley-backed creations, either. “My mom finds it hilarious and fascinating that all these people are just making burgers,” says Lily. “She is like, ‘Why don’t they make other stuff?’ Yeah, you all can do burgers. We’ll make everything else.”
This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura.