Lab-grown shrimp dumplings taste like the real thing

Left: Stem cell biologists Sandhya Sriram and Ling Ka Yi decided to harness stem cells for food, like lab-grown shrimp dumplings (above), launched by Shiok Meats last month.
Stem cell biologists Sandhya Sriram and Ling Ka Yi decided to harness stem cells for food, like lab-grown shrimp dumplings, launched by Shiok Meats last month.PHOTO: SHIOK MEATS
Left: Stem cell biologists Sandhya Sriram and Ling Ka Yi decided to harness stem cells for food, like lab-grown shrimp dumplings (above), launched by Shiok Meats last month.
Stem cell biologists Sandhya Sriram and Ling Ka Yi decided to harness stem cells for food, like lab-grown shrimp dumplings (above), launched by Shiok Meats last month.PHOTO: SHIOK MEATS

The mince inside the yellow dumpling looks and tastes like shrimp, according to the few people who have tasted it, yet it costs more to produce than the priciest abalone.

The filling did not come from the sea, but was created using shrimp stem cells in a local lab.

Shiok Meats, the region's first cell-based seafood firm, launched its first creation, lab-grown shrimp dumplings, last month.

It took the eight-month-old company months of trial and error and $5,000 to make just eight dumplings using cell-cultured shrimp, according to its co-founder and chief executive officer Sandhya Sriram.

She and colleague Ling Ka Yi, 31, both stem cell biologists, moved from studying stem cells for medical treatments to harnessing them for food. They wanted to cater to the seafood-loving Asian palate.

"As the cells need nutrients to grow and multiply, we had to go back and forth... to figure out which worked for us," Dr Sandhya, 33, told The Straits Times at yesterday's Food for the Future Summit.

Held at Marina Bay Sands, it brought together industry leaders from the food and beverage sector to discuss issues such as food sustainability and convenience.

Both scientists - who worked at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) - extracted stem cells from locally farmed, antibiotic-free shrimps.

By January, their lab at Biopolis was filled with flasks and bottles containing millions of shrimp stem cells in a pink nutrient solution. It took two to four weeks for the cells to multiply and grow into muscle tissue, forming minced shrimp.

  • $5,000

  • How much it costs to produce the Shiok Shrimp Dumplings. It took the company months of trial and error to make just eight dumplings.

Their Shiok Shrimp Dumplings cost $5,000 to produce because the commercially available nutrient solution - also known as culture media - is expensive.

This comprises the bulk of the cost, which Dr Sandhya believes will fall once production is ramped up in three to five years.

By the end of next year, the company hopes to reduce the cost to $50 per kg by making its own in-house plant-based culture media.

This food for cells is made up of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and growth factors - a form of protein to coax the cells to multiply. The team has plans to eventually sell their plant-based culture media for between $1 and $5 per litre.

Most of the company's investments come from foreign companies. Dr Sandhya did not reveal the amount American venture firm Big Idea Ventures put into Shiok Meats for its seed funding.

 
 
 

With the US$50 million (S$68 million), Big Idea Ventures intends to fund more than 100 companies that can produce alternative proteins over the next four years.

Shiok Meats plans to expand into making a product that has the mouth-feel of whole shrimp flesh, and hopes to produce lab-grown prawn, crab and lobster flesh.

It is working with local research companies to create the texture of a shrimp and connect the muscle tissues by mixing the tissues with edible plant-based collagen.

A vegetarian who tries her best to live sustainably, Dr Sandhya said she did not agree with killing animals for meat but has no qualms eating her own creation. "When I first tasted our shrimp dumpling, I didn't feel any guilt because I knew it was clean and healthy. Moving forward, if I do like the taste of cell-based meat like chicken, I would eat it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline 'Lab-grown shrimp dumplings taste like the real thing'. Print Edition | Subscribe