Cultivated food

My experience tasting protein made from thin air

By Qiyun Woo

Solar Foods unveiled the first tasting of Solein, the company’s protein made from thin air. Is it a marketing gimmick or the future of food?

Proteins made from thin air? At first, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The idea of protein created out of thin air sounded like a clever marketing ploy, and I was hooked, but more than a little sceptical so when Green Queen’s editor-in-chief Sonalie Figueiras asked me to join what was described as a historic first tasting of Solein, a protein made from air, on their behalf and write about the experience, I was game.

Solein powder – courtesy Solar Foods

Before attending the tasting, I made a conscious decision not to Google the company behind it – Solar Foods. I wanted my experience to be guided purely by my initial impressions and free of any preconceived notions.

When I think about alternative proteins, my mind immediately goes to those attempting to mimic meat for plant-based or low-carbon diets. So, naturally, my first question to the Solar Foods team was, ‘What type of meat are you imitating and what can I expect in terms of texture?’ I must admit, their kind-but-slightly-taken-aback stares made me realise that I had completely missed the mark. Solein, as it turns out, isn’t trying to recreate meat at all. I was embarrassed by my own ignorance.

So, what exactly is Solein? Let’s get to the “from thin air” part. The first thing that caught my eye was how it looked, a golden powder, elegantly resting on the table, reminiscent of the enchanted rose in “Beauty and the Beast.”

What I was looking at is the product of a non-photosynthetic microbe that has undergone fermentation, much like the process of making kombucha or beer. Here’s where it gets interesting: they use electricity from renewable sources to split water from the air into hydrogen and oxygen. Then, they feed these microbes “tiny bubbles of CO2 and nutrients, like nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.” These microbes grow in liquid form and are eventually transformed into an orange-coloured dry powder known as Solein. Shilei Zhang, Solar’s Chief Commercial Officer, likened it to making protein with a SodaStream machine. 

Smoked Pumpkin with Solein Salted Egg sauce – courtesy Solar Foods

Nutritionally, Solein’s composition is 65-70% protein, 5-8% fat, 10-15% dietary fibres and 3-5% mineral nutrients. The company says its macronutrient profile is similar to dried soy or algae and adds that Solein offers both iron and B vitamins, both crucial nutrients that are often sourced from animal ingredients. 

No doubt, Solein has much to recommend it, but the real question still remains: how does it taste? Not too bad, actually. We were given the opportunity to try the powder on its own. Picture putting a scoop of flour in your mouth, but instead of the usual blandness, you’re greeted with subtle hints of buttery, nutty flavours.

Then I tried Solein in various forms in a multi-course tasting menu. The event was held at the newly-opened Fica, a restaurant owned by the Singaporean hospitality player The Lo & Behold Group. The dishes were prepared by Oliver Truesdale Jutras, a Chef and future food thought leader, and Michelin-starred Chef Mirko Febbrile.

Challenged to use Solein powder, Chefs Oliver and Mirko crafted an entirely vegan meal, the first of which was the Kansai-style Ozoni Misolein Soup

The chefs chose to open the meal with the Ozoni soup, which the Japanese traditionally eat in the morning on New Year’s Day, a fitting symbol for the dawn of the future of food, a slogan that featured prominently at the event. The lightly orange soup was salty and had an umami taste. Given that the protein itself has savoury notes, it was unclear if the umami taste came from other aspects of the soup or from Solein. Nonetheless, it was tasty and I finished every drop.

Chef Mirko making Solein pasta – courtesy Solar Foods

This was followed by Solein Pasta With Singapore Pesto. As we watched the kitchen staff whip up the pasta right in front of us, Chef Mirko explained how Solein serves as a raw ingredient that can be used in its liquid form or manipulated with oils and liquids to achieve textures to mimic proteins such as egg yolk, creating pasta with that perfect stringy texture. I can attest to this, as I actually played with the pasta on the countertop (which we did not eat of course). The pasta dish was tangy yet incredibly savoury, with my tablemates sharing that they tasted hints of laksa leaves.

Our third course was a delightful Smoked Pumpkin With Solein Salted Egg Sauce. The creamy flavour of the Solein salted egg sauce was enhanced with the touch of spice from what tasted like curry leaves, complementing its original buttery essence. The slab of pumpkin was almost like a steak, and cutting each piece with a knife and fork while dipping it in the sauce presented a hearty and filling meal. Its tender texture made me realise that with this as a dish, I don’t think I’d miss eating meat at all. I can only imagine what chilli padi would do to this flavour profile.

Solein pasta with Singapore pesto – courtesy Solar Foods

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