The announcement this week that Tesco is to stock “bleeding” vegan burgers in UK stores was welcomed as an ingenious move by some but dismissed as a food crime by others. In the latter camp was Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore who wondered why a vegetarian feels the need to replicate animals’ body fluids.
For Americans, the only response is “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” US chefs have been experimenting with the concept of “bleeding” plant-based foods for a while. At Ducks Eatery, a brick-lined bistro in New York’s East Village, a prime example is on the menu …
As chef Will Horowitz cuts into a hunk of pink, juicy flesh and piles up thick slices on the cutting board, the scent of rosemary and smoke fills the air. The roast has been brined for four days, then, like most of the dishes on Ducks’ menu, smoked for hours. But this one stands out: it isn’t meat – it’s a watermelon.
Horowitz treats the watermelon as he would a ham or pork joint, brining it with salt, spice and ash before placing it in the smoker. To finish, it’s basted in an oven with olive oil, rosemary and garlic. The price tag of $75 reflects the time it takes to make and the fact it serves up to five people. And, evidently, the cost hasn’t put people off. When it hit the restaurant menu this summer there was a three-week waiting list to get one.
“We had 3,000 requests in the first two weeks” says Horowitz. “The phone was crazy every single night.”
The watermelon became an instant hit on Instagram, racking up views as users reacted in a mix of horror and excitement. The social media frenzy has died down but roast watermelon is now in demand in the run up to next week’s Thanksgiving holiday as an alternative to turkey.
Biting into the watermelon, you know right away you’re eating a fruit. It’s tender and juicy, nothing like the sinewy chew of beef. But the seasoning – smokey with bursts of rosemary and chilli – melds with the juices to create a flavourful mouthful that’s both sweet and savoury.
“I think people love anything with a surprise reveal,” says Herrine Ro, a food video producer at the website Insider. Ro also points to the trend for “vegan foods that look like their meat counterparts”.
As increasing numbers of Americans move away from meat, vegan barbecue joints are cropping up across the country, from Homegrown Smoker in Portland, Oregon, to Seasoned Vegan in Harlem, New York, which serves up barbecue “riblets” made from lotus root and fermented soy.
Even non-vegans are drawn to the watermelon’s massive proportions, a factor that seems to increase the chances of a dish going viral on social media. Jeremy Jacobowitz, who runs the Instagram account Brunch Boys, says that two of his most popular posts this summer were a giant ice-cream sandwich and a pizza with “so much burrata, you can’t even see the ’za!”
But Horowitz insists the watermelon was a culinary experiment rather than a ploy for Instagram attention. A smoked cantaloupe burger is also on the menu at Ducks, while smoked watermelon slices are used in the “wagyumelon” sandwich, a vegetarian take on the wagyu (beef) katsu sandwich, at sister shop, Harry and Ida’s, on 12th Street and Avenue A. He points to other restaurants where plant-based foods are more than a side, such as René Redzepi’sNoma, which launched a vegetable tasting menu this year, featuring dishes such as celeriac shawarma.
“It’s not something we expected to have people waiting out the door for. It was just an experiment,” says Horowitz. “Why would you not test these things and see where you can explore and go? Maybe I’ll do a fruit haggis next!”
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