Meat, meet your match

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It looks like meat, cooks like meat, and tastes like meat – but it’s not. It’s jackfruit. A Taleigao-based startup led by Sairaj Dhond is dishing out jackfruit products as an alternative form of meat and NT BUZZ is here for it

ANNA FERNANDES | NT BUZZ

Goans love their meat. So, making the switch to plant-based diets and healthier food options is understandably difficult.

But these are fine days to go meat-free. And Sairaj Dhond’s venture Wakao Foods is proving that it has, in fact, never been easier. The food startup has turned the locally abundant jackfruit into ‘meatless’ meat products that are worthy competitors to the real thing.

Wakao Foods was born during the lockdown last year when Dhond decided to explore the food business – sustainable food, in particular – after realising the benefits of an oft-overlooked superfood. “Jackfruit is a superfood that grows in our backyard and often goes unnoticed. It is considered to be a superfood because of its many nutritional benefits. It is also a good source of fibre, vitamin C, calcium and magnesium,” he says. In addition, he adds, its meat-like texture and versatility make it the perfect inclusive choice for all dietary preferences.

Dhond began his career as a criminal litigator. But his heart was in entrepreneurship. Switching careers was an overnight decision and he never looked back. In fact, the joy of entrepreneurship is perhaps reflected in the brand name ‘Wakao’, which translates to “an exclamation that resembles the feeling of joy”. “As a brand, we are extremely passionate about bringing ethically sourced and sustainably grown food to the table. We are constantly exploring alternative foods which are good for both – our customers’ health as well as our planet,” Dhond explains.

Besides promoting healthy eating while respecting the creatures that share our planet, through his venture Dhond aimed at dispelling the common misconception that vegan or healthy food doesn’t taste good. “Jackfruit meat can be a part of your lip-smacking recipe and one does not have to compromise on the taste. Also, the meat-like texture is all to go for,” he adds.

Currently, the venture serves both ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products, each curated to suit different tastes, from meat lovers to fitness enthusiasts. The ready-to-cook varieties include the ‘Raw Jack’ and the ‘Jack Burger Patty’ while the ready-to-eat varieties include the ‘Teriyaki Jack’, the ‘BBQ Jack’, and the ‘Butter Jack’. Moreover, these products are completely natural, with zero preservatives or artificial substances. The products have a one-year shelf life and do not require any refrigeration!

And perfecting this involved a lot of trial and error. “We spent close to 10 months on research and development to understand what the consumers want and to make a product that would be palatable to people across the spectrum. We also work with consultant chefs to find the perfect vegan alternatives and make sure the product is guilt-free and delicious at the same time,” explains Dhond.

But it has all been worth it because the variants are seeing great traction among individuals as well as restaurants in Goa. “Goans are not new to jackfruit and have been eating it since time immemorial. Although the concept of mock meats is new to Goans, they have been very receptive towards our Wakao products and that has given us the confidence to expand pan-India within such a short time,” he says, adding that the products are available in various retail outlets in Goa, online for delivery across the country, as well as prepared in dishes in leading restaurants of Goa.

Dhond admits that while he is not a vegan, he has adopted a more vegan-friendly diet after learning about its benefits. “The environment is definitely benefited due to the consumption of plants and plant-based meats. It reduces the carbon footprint and encourages forestation. Plant-based foods are easy to consume and reduce risk of heart-related diseases, blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and obesity,” he says, adding that he has personally started making more conscious choices that are in line with encouraging sustainable food habits.

And in the same breath, he dismisses the myth that choosing a plant-based diet is more expensive. “[These products] are probably costlier than your normal chicken and pork but when you look at good quality mutton, lamb, turkey and pork, jackfruit meat is definitely a cheaper option to meat while you can get the same texture and make tasty dishes.” Keeping this in mind, he adds that Wakao Foods offers competitive prices for consumers. “We don’t think anyone should pay a heavy amount of money when it comes to sourcing plant-based meat. We’ve also learned during the lockdown that while people compromised on many luxuries of life, they didn’t compromise on food. People are willing to pay for something that is nutritional, clean and something that can be a healthy alternative to meat as well.”

And so far, it has been a great journey. “It’s been challenging but at the same time very, very satisfying,” he says. “I have received a lot of love and support from friends and family throughout my journey at Wakao Foods. People are more than happy to help, share their network, and guide you. Constructive feedback from our initial customers helped us improve and overcome our shortcomings at a much faster pace.” Now, with his sights firmly on the future, Dhond shares his dream to take the jackfruit from Goan backyards to the world. “We do have a few international companies showing interest in our products and that would be a great next step for us. However, currently, we are looking at expanding nationally and getting our products on the shelves across the country. Within the next six to eight months, we look at having our presence in at least 25 cities across India.”