A taco can change your life.
It did for Karana’s co-founder Dan Riegler, who while working in Indonesia was so amazed that a delicious “pork” taco he was eating was actually jackfruit that he immediately started looking into jackfruit-meat products and supply sources.
Serendipity then led Riegler (who’s worked across start-ups in agriculture, food tech and fintech) to Blair Crichton, who’s done stints with food-tech start-ups like Impossible Foods, New Age Meats and The Good Foods Institute in California’s Silicon Valley.
Their Singapore-based company, Karana, plans to launch “pork” made from organic jackfruit later this year. In July, it closed its seed funding round with US$1.7 million ($2.3 million), with seed investors including the Monde Nissin Group (which bought Quorn Foods for £550m in 2015), agtech investment firms Big Idea Ventures and Germi8, and angel investors including Hong Kong-based food and beverage entrepreneurs.
Karana plans to use the funds to launch its first range of whole-plant “pork” with restaurants here, following up with a range of ready-to-cook dim sum items like char siew bao and “pork”-and-chive dumpling for retail customers. Dim sum was chosen as consumers find it familiar and easy to prepare, says Crichton, who adds that Karana will also offer the whole-plant meat alternative for retail soon.
So far, culinary experiments with Karana’s jackfruit-pork have proven promising, with chefs using it successfully in all manner of Eastern and Western dishes like Taiwanese lu rou fan (braised pork rice), Korean bulgogi, banh mi, shish kebabs and pizza.
The proprietary techniques Karana uses to make “pork” from young jackfruit may be cutting edge, but the idea is anything but, according to its founders, who note jackfruit’s long history in Asian cuisine.
Unlike ripe jackfruit, which is bright yellow with a strong fragrance and fruit-candy-like taste, young jackfruit is off-white, neutral in taste and smell, and has a meat-like consistency.
“Young jackfruit makes for a great plant-based meat alternative as it cooks, chunks and shreds like pork or chicken,” says Malcolm Lee, chef-owner of Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant Candlenut.
“It has a meaty texture without the usual heaviness associated with beef or lamb. It easily sops up the flavours of any rempah (spice pastes commonly used in Peranakan cuisine) or gravy it’s cooked in too,” says Lee, who prepares jackfruit in a range of Candlenut dishes including rendang and a creamy coconut curry with sweet potato leaf and tempeh.
Chef Rishi Naleendra, who’s of Sri Lankan heritage and is behind Cloudstreet and soon-to-open Sri Lankan restaurant Kotuwa, remembers frequently eating baby jackfruit curry growing up.
“Sometimes, my mum would braise jackfruit seeds, which are really delicious and starchy. Also, one of my favourite things to eat was ‘fish’ cutlets made with jackfruit — they always made a brilliant snack,” says Naleendra, who plans to feature young jackfruit in pickles, curry and kottu roti at Kotuwa.
Riegler and Crichton want to bring jackfruit’s culinary potential to more consumers as an attractive alternative to pork, which they say is the most consumed meat in Asia. But Crichton says Karana’s product is unlike other available meat alternatives, some of which have drawn flak for relying heavily on commodity crops and being highly processed.
“We’re taking something that’s already invented by nature and transforming it through science,” says Crichton, who says Karana’s whole-plant “pork” is about 98 percent jackfruit, with minimal oil, salt and added flavouring.
“It’s just a mechanical process. We’re not denaturing anything. We retain all the jackfruit’s natural nutrients.” While it’s admittedly not entirely like meat — jackfruit is low in protein — it’s high in fibre, low in sugar and contains inflammation-fighting antioxidants and polyphenols.
Karana’s launch is timely given current trends in the US and Asia towards plant-based meats. A Reuters article in April observed that demand for plant-based protein is surging in Asia due to increasing fears of possible links between wild animal meat and Covid-19.
“Consumers are looking for more transparency, particularly in what they eat,” says Crichton, who adds that some are particularly leery of “really long ingredient lists”. Time-strapped consumers are also looking for meals that offer taste and convenience without damaging the environment. Apart from helping to reduce (the ecologically unsustainable) demand for meat, Karana sources its organic fruit from a network of smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka, where the jackfruit tree is protected.
Karana’s seed funding is the latest boost in Singapore’s bid to become a premier ecosystem for agri-food tech startups. Enterprise Singapore, which has set aside over $55 million to accelerate the growth of promising local agriculture and aquaculture companies, expects to groom over 150 agri-food tech startups over the next few years.
“Singapore is really building itself as the start-up ecosystem in South-east Asia,” says Crichton, whose team currently works out of Innovate 360, the first food incubator with manufacturing facilities here. Although there are several contenders in the agritech scene, Crichton says the biggest challenge lies in getting consumers to adopt a more diversified diet.
“I want all the companies in my space to succeed because we all have the same mission,” says Crichton. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
3 Singapore-based food and biotech start-ups to watch
This story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of A Magazine.