Here's something that might surprise you: Shama Lee is not a fully-fledged vegan.

"I eat green-shelled mussels. I think they're very sustainable," she says. "The more you farm them, the more they filter the water. That's good."

Sustainability is on Lee's mind a lot these days. The former software engineer chucked in her successful tech career four years ago to create Sunfed Meats, a New Zealand-based company that creates meat alternatives out of yellow pea protein.

Why did she do it? Two reasons. "I had an identity crisis," she says. "I was going through my life on auto-pilot." So she quit her job and took a year off to focus on her future. "I couldn't get up and go to work when it doesn't mean anything to me. "


And the second? Lee had been trialling different diets, trying to find one that worked for her. "It's really hard to switch from meat. I definitely relapsed a lot of times," she says.

She struggled to reconcile her love for animals with eating meat. But when she settled on a mostly plant-based diet, she was unsatisfied by the range of protein alternatives on offer. "When I didn't want to eat chicken, it was really difficult to find an alternative," she says.

So she designed her own, spending years researching and developing the technology and machinery required to turn sustainably sourced plant proteins into "meaty, long, succulent fibres".

Sunfed's chicken-free chicken tandoori skewers.
Sunfed's chicken-free chicken tandoori skewers.

The result is Sunfed Meat and, so far, Lee's been stunned by demand for their first product, "chicken-free chicken". And not just from vegans. "It's massive - there's been huge demand from the mainstream market," she says.

It's been selling out since day one. It's on supermarket shelves nationwide. It's in vegan satay pies in BP petrol station cafes. And you'll see it on a handful of menus in eateries around Auckland.

At The Butcher's Son on Jervois Rd, they pan fry it with a salad, or put it in a burger. At Newmarket's Wise Cicada, they use it in a Chiang Mai curry. And at Health Nut Kitchen on Chancery St, they serve it with jackfruit and coconut guacamole in a nacho bowl.

Now it's out there, next on Lee's to-do list is expansion. Sunfed's working on meat-free bacon, beef chunks and burger patties. She's looking to expand to Australia to help meet demand over there, and find a solution to the daily Facebook messages she gets from overseas.

Lee says it's important to her that she and her brand aren't preachy. She's not judging your diet choices, and she doesn't consider Sunfed a vegan brand. Instead, she says Sunfed's simply offering consumers a choice.

Sunfed's chicken-free chicken ramen.
Sunfed's chicken-free chicken ramen.

"Everyone's saying we're eating too much meat, but no one's really putting forward a solution for it. I didn't want to be part of a campaign of judging and preaching. I'm a solutions architect," she says. "We don't hold any sort of position."

For someone who spends every waking minute involved in the creation, development and expansion of her own product, Lee still loves it. For today's lunch with Weekend, she has her Sunfed "chicken" pan-fried with a salad. She admits she had something similar for breakfast.

When she gets home tonight, she might cook it up for dinner as well. "Demand is so high, we only get the rejects," she laughs. Lee doesn't mind. She says even those are delicious.

Ironically, getting high on her own supply is good for business. "This has been the hardest thing I've done in my life," Lee says. "For a long time it was just me. If I slowed down, Sunfed slowed down. If I couldn't perform, Sunfed was stalling.

"I have to make sure I'm fuelled up, be my best and get shit done."

• Sunfed's chicken-free chicken is available in Supermarkets nationwide. For a full range of stockists, visit