A few years ago, they regaled us with their crackling chemistry on the silver screen and walked away with the label as one of the cutest couples of Bollywood. But Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh are now intent on being seriously considered as ambassadors of conscious consumption. As former and ardent meat lovers, the duo embarked on the path towards sustainability as they adopted a vegan lifestyle. Cut to their newest homegrown venture called Imagine Meats, which offers vegan alternatives to keema, seekh kebab, biryani, nuggets and sausage, all while retaining the taste, texture, nutrition and flavour profiles of the real meaty deal.
We delved deeper with Genelia Deshmukh to understand what propelled the couple towards this kind of entrepreneurship and all that's in store in the future.
Edited excerpts from an interview
What inspired you to launch a plant-based meat brand and do you remember how the idea first occurred to you?
Riteish and I were both meat eaters before we became vegan. While I was a happy vegetarian, Riteish, on the other hand, missed his meat. Often, vegans are mistaken as people who don't enjoy the taste of meat, but that's not the case at all. Sometimes, it's just that they associate more with sustainability, a better planet and want to contribute towards the movement that protects animals. Many also turn towards veganism for health reasons, because most plant-based protein is devoid of cholesterol, hormones and preservatives.
The other misunderstanding around this phenomenon is that meat is the only source of protein. But things are changing, and science and technology have proven that the protein present in plants, which is complete with lipids and amino acids, can also be harnessed for our consumption. Food tech is making the same culinary experience attached to eating meat possible for plant-based lifestylers too. So, that was the premise under which we launched Imagine Meats and the idea was to create a brand that provided the entire experience of a meal and was fast to cook, while remaining high on protein, filled with good carbohydrates and being devoid of cholesterol.
The whole idea of plant-based meat is to reduce the impact on the environment. In a market that is increasingly getting populated with more players, do you think this fastened growth rate will also impact the environment eventually?
Currently, the environment is already tremendously impacted. With brands like us, we have to take a zillion steps back from where we are, in order for us to be at a stage where the environment is not going to be so badly impacted in the future. It's just that the process needs to start today. We need to start growing more crops, eating more plants and start saving our natural biodiversity by protecting our animals.
You and Ritesh are a Bollywood couple, so obviously, there is a massive fan following and with that, comes immense responsibility. How do you intend to use your platforms to spread the right word around plant-based meats?
Plant-based meat is a correction from our end to save the environment. For me, it's also inner healing. In the sense that I was always non-vegetarian, but then, I found my protein source in plants. As someone whose voice is heard, I would like to definitely speak about my journey, how it has changed my life and I am keen on coming forward to help people who want to make that change in their lives too.
The environmental issues that lie under animal agriculture and solutions that plant-based meats are here to offer are really poorly appreciated. What do you think can be done in this space to better highlight its benefits?
It's a matter of time, where everyone will start making the change towards plant-based meats. Right now, it's just a lack of knowledge and understanding. So, the more we speak, the more options we throw out there. That will automatically mean we help more people understand this better. And the ones who learn from it earlier will make a bigger impact, eventually.
Do you agree that plant-based meats are not focused on vegetarians? It's focused on creating a superior version of meats, which is more environmentally friendly? Who is your target audience?
I don't think so. Especially when it comes to Imagine Meats, it's for people who want a better lifestyle that is environmentally conscious. It's definitely something that is out there to make you feel like you can have your meat without really hurting an animal. That's the thought process. And it's why we try to create a texture that is close to the real deal. So many vegetarians can now try 'meat' without feeling guilty. I would say it's just as much for vegetarians as well. Earlier there were not many plant-based meat or products available in the market hence people did not have much of an option, however they have access to that now. The more options available, the more the chances of people making the shift.
According to the data that you may have collected from your consumer base, what do you think is the motivating factor for someone to eat plant-based meats?
People today have become more aware: be it about the planet, or about their own health. They have become extremely conscious about their lifestyle and try to be as sustainable as possible. At home, I am constantly reminded by my children to not use tissues to protect the trees. I feel like you can't be an animal lover and at the same time eat chicken.
Do you think popular Indian restaurants like Indian Accent, Bombay Canteen, Masque and others will ever accept plant-based meats and experiment with them?
There are definitely a lot of people out there who want to try plant-based meats. I personally have met chefs who feel the need and want to try it. We have been talking to a few chefs who are excited to try our products. With their culinary expertise, we can curate unique and amazing dishes with each chef using their signature cooking style and ingredients.
What is your long-term vision for the brand?
Our vision for the brand is to have all kinds of meats like fish, pork and shrimp. I'd love to have an oriental menu along with North Indian and South Indian menus. The idea is to have different flavours of India at different strategic points of the country. We are a vast nation, with each flavour distinct to a particular region. Our goal is to incorporate as much of that as possible.
Sonal Ved is the editor at IFN. She is also an author of an award-winning cookbook called Tiffin. She travelled through the first five tastes to be able to tell between a brie and provolone dolce. She can make stellar undhiyu and a green smoothie.