By Samantha Lees
While meat-alternatives seem to be popping up faster than mushrooms, KARANA sets itself apart from the others by ticking a number of fantastic boxes: using a single whole-plant ingredient that supports biodiversity, reduces food waste, and is sourced from smallholder farmers in South Asia. We spoke to Blair Crichton, co-founder of Singapore-based meat-alternative startup KARANA, about changing Asia’s food system starting with the humble but impactful jackfruit.
“Delicious, whole-plant food”
“Our mission is to create a better food system by addressing issues in the way our food is made, issues in animal agriculture and making delicious whole-plant food that you can feel good about eating more of.” Blair, having grown up in Hong Kong, saw the opportunity for meat alternatives specifically for Asian cuisine. His co-founder Dan Riegler, who worked in agri-commodities supply chains across Southeast Asia, believed in developing a whole-plant meat alternative product that uses sustainable farming practices and does not rely on commodity crops. Seeing as how Asia produces and consumes over half of the world’s pork, an alternative pork product was needed. KARANA was thus founded in 2018, starting with the use of young jackfruit as an alternative pork product.
“We developed something that can be cooked in 5 minutes”
Jackfruit is naturally very meat-like, with a fibrous texture that is very similar to shredded pork. Made of unripe jackfruit – a versatile, neutral-tasting whole food – KARANA’S pork alternative absorbs flavour as it cooks, giving chefs boundless space to be creative with cooking it.
In Southeast Asia, jackfruit is commonly used in vegetarian and vegan dishes as a meat substitute. “Unfortunately the way jackfruit had been industrialised and commercialised didn’t meet consumer expectations around tasting experience – it doesn’t do it justice”. So Blair and Dan developed their own proprietary technology, using a mechanical process to enhance the natural texture and flavours of jackfruit, and showcase it in its best possible format. “Raw jackfruit [prep] is very laborious and takes a lot of time and knowledge. We developed something that can be cooked in 5 minutes, making it much more kitchen-friendly for both chefs and consumers.”
KARANA’S revolutionary product only uses four ingredients: young jackfruit, canola oil, sea salt and natural flavour. Nutritionally it is much healthier than pork in many ways: contains far fewer calories, no cholesterol, and is naturally high in dietary fibres, vitamins, calcium and magnesium. Unlike many other products on the market that are made of heavily processed soy and pea products, KARANA offers a whole-plant minimally processed product, free from artificial preservatives, colours and flavours.
“Jackfruit is a very sustainable crop, which is very important for us”
Jackfruit is an extremely efficient crop: high yielding while requiring very little water for growing. It is generally grown as a shade crop, which helps conserve biodiversity in the ecosystem and protect soil health. It is also a very scalable crop and there is an abundance of it. “Upwards of 60% of the jackfruit crop goes to waste – we’re creating a home for that and trying to reduce that waste.”
Photo: Karana // Fun fact: the jackfruit tree is protected in Sri Lanka and you can’t cut it down without a permit.
KARANA currently sources its jackfruit from Sri Lanka, working with smallholder farmers to give them an additional income stream by utilising that wasted jackfruit. “Sri Lanka has very good farming practices. They use agro-forestry which cares for the environment and produces great quality crops – it’s a great place to start.”
“We sold more volume in Hong Kong in our first three weeks than we did in Singapore in the first three months”
KARANA launched in Hong Kong with 7 restaurant partners in May 2021, yielding great feedback from chefs, diners and the press.
“Uptake of KARANA in Hong Kong has been very positive. In fact the volume that our restaurants sold in the first three weeks of launch surpassed the volume that Singapore did in the first three months.” It appears that Hong Kong consumers are very aware and willing to embrace plant-based and plant-forward diets. Bold moves made by some restaurants in Hong Kong testify to that: Beef & Liberty with their launch of their vegetarian and plant-based Leaves & Liberty brand, and Ovolo Hotels’ menu going vegetarian for an entire year.
“The number one thing is to cater to market demand.” Blair stressed that KARANA isn’t just for vegans and vegetarians. KARANA allows restaurants to easily cater to the growing number of flexitarians – people who want to eat healthy and plant-based, and cut down on meat consumption, as well as those who just want to try something unique and different. “It’s about giving diners a great experience with no sacrifice on taste, health or sustainability.”
Foodservice providers and diners can also look forward to a new mince product that is planned for launch later this year, which is also made from whole-plant and minimally processed.
Photo: KARANA // Fun fact: Blair’s favourite KARANA recipe is dim sum. Having grown up in Hong Kong, he had been missing his dim sum ever since he went vegan. KARANA has fulfilled his cravings for char siu baos.
“Becoming a Food Made Good Member was about joining a community of like-minded people in the F&B space who want to see a better food system.” KARANA are keen to network within the community and partner up with more member restaurants to drive change in Asia’s food system.