Tempeh, the other vegetarian “meat”

4 Feb

Where's the tempeh?

I realize that a lot of my posts involve meat: hamburgers, roast pig, fish, pork dumplings, braised pork…but it’s not all about the animals here at SOK. With the new year (both Gregorian and lunar) underway, my thoughts have turned to healthy eating, and often that means looking for meat alternatives. (There’s no vegan equivalent of pork belly, after all.) Most people are familiar with tofu, and soy-based fake meats like Boca Burgers, but tempeh is less well-known (at least to non-vegetarians), and usually only encountered in its seasoned, cooked form at Trader Joe’s.

Tempeh originated in Indonesia, and it’s widely eaten there and in Malaysia; go to the market, and you’ll see packets of fresh, homemade tempeh for sale. I was always under the impression that it was made from grains, but a little Googling revealed that it, too, is a soy product. Soybeans are mixed with a grain, like rice or millet (so I wasn’t completely wrong), then combined with starter and left to ferment for a day or so. It doesn’t taste fermented, though, just a bit nutty.

Tempeh’s firm texture — sort of like a cross between cheese and a veggie burger — makes it ideal for stir-fries like the one pictured left. My mom had never tried tempeh, and we were at Kale’s Deli in Honolulu, where my high school classmate works. (She also bakes some killer gluten-free, vegan cookies, which converted even my very non-health-food-oriented in-laws.) What better place for a first tempeh experience? Here, it’s combined with roasted kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), long beans, and a sesame-soy-miso sauce, and served over a secret blend of whole grains. It tasted healthy in a good way, like you were eating something to nourish your body. It inspired me to incorporate tempeh into my own cooking. But I’m drawing the line at actually making it myself.

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