How Two Biology Students Created Chicken Wings Made From Chickpeas

Two UC Berkley lab partners-turned-entrepreneurs share the inspiration behind creating a new sustainable food brand. Sundial Foods founders Siwen Deng, CTO, and Jessica Schwabach, CEO, used the skills learned in Plant and Microbial Biology plus Molecular and Cell Biology degrees to make crispy "chicken" from chickpeas. The food is inspired by that idea that food animals, or farm animals, are merely "processing machines" which help convert plants to table-ready entrees. Food animals also require significant investments in time, money, and energy. Says Sundial Foods on the "science" behind the idea, "Producing food from animals is inefficient, so we cut out the middle hen."

The idea led to a vegan "wing" made from only eight ingredients: water, chickpeas, chickpea protein powder, gluten, sunflower oil, soybeans, nutritional yeast, and salt. And while the idea itself is simple, the product took "years of research and development to perfect" a "proprietary technology."

From lab to live online, the experience for these young entrepreneurs has been a thrill and surprise as they have watched their inspiration become a reality. Says Schwabach to Mashed, "In a way, I was watching the plant-based alternatives space grow and evolve from the consumer side for years without anticipating that I'd actually wind up as one of those innovators." But where does one get the inspiration to start a new food product from scratch?

The inspiration behind developing a new food

Jessica Schwabach shares more on her inspiration behind the creation of Sundial Foods with Mashed: "I am most inspired by the sense of togetherness and community of cooking and sharing a meal with loved ones. I have many fond memories of spending time with family and friends where I remember the time spent being with them more than I recall the actual meal that brought us together." Schwabach further notes that, "wings are a very shareable food!"

Siwen Deng has been inspired by the science behind food development: "I have always been a big fan of molecular gastronomy. As a scientist, I'm fascinated by the way chefs use chemistry to transform simple ingredients into edible works of art." Molecular gastronomy might be considered the place where food and science intersect with deconstructed and reconstructed food creations, as shared by Gourmet Food World. Popular gastronomy techniques include: "spherification, gelification, emulsification, transformation, and sous vide." Says Deng, "The beauty of molecular gastronomy is just one of the reasons that food science captured my interest as I was finishing my PhD."

Rolling Stone was an early fan of this chickpea-chicken project, noting that this school-project-turned-business used a $4 million investment from a "Nestle incubator" to create a chicken "drumstick" that it describes as "hyper-realistic" with a "coveted skin texture." Referring to the 2022 product launch, the magazine goes on to describe the process as "one of the cleanest plant-based protein products on the market."

What do chickpea chicken wings taste like?

Vegan chicken wings actually weren't the "go-to" food for Sundial Food founders Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng — which is why they had to make their own, as shared with Mashed. In college, Schwabach would often snack on new products she found at the Berkeley Student Food Collective, "really intrigued by any animal-free snack foods that would pop up." Deng shares she was so busy with PhD work that she often grabbed whatever was convenient, but a "regular favorite was tortilla chips with artichoke & jalapeño dip."

Deng describes the experience of eating a Sundial wing: "The Sundial Wings experience is unlike any other plant-based meat you've tried. Whether fried or grilled, the exterior skin of our wings has a signature crunch that people often associate with animal-based chicken wings. We use a bamboo stick as the bone, so you can pick up a piece with your hands like you would with traditional wings." Adds Schwabach, "they're crispy, juicy, and best when super spicy!"

And just why are these chickpea-based chicken wings different from other meat alternatives? It's all about the ingredients. Schwabach adds, "For creating a chicken-like texture, chickpeas work well with our process. They also are not as astringent, bitter, and beany as some of the other alternatives commonly used in plant-based meat, so it's easier to work with the flavor." Sundial Foods wings are available at limited locations and can be found through a zip code search online.