Going meatless with tofu, tempeh and seitan

A Santa Rosa chef shares innovative ways to incorporate healthy protein-rich ingredients into your vegetarian meals.|

With the rising popularity of “Meatless Monday,” even confirmed meat eaters in the U.S. are looking for ways to supplement their diets with protein-rich food sources like tofu, tempeh and seitan.

These soy- and wheat-based products have deep roots in Asia, where they have been developed into all kinds of hybrid products that look, chew and sometimes even taste like meat, poultry or seafood.

“If you go to Thailand and you order a fish dish, it looks like fish but it’s really tofu,” said Olarn Tonverapongsiri, chef/owner of Thai Time Asian Bistro in Santa Rosa. “They don’t want you to think you’re eating tofu, and people love it because they are eating something healthy.”

Tonverapongsiri, who grew up in Thailand with a Thai mother and Chinese father, sticks to a vegetarian diet, which means he often gets creative with tofu, also known as bean curd. In East and Southeast Asia, fresh tofu is made by cooking pureed soybeans to make a milk, then curdling the soy milk.

“There are a lot of different kinds of tofu,” he said. “I like the egg tofu (made with soybean milk and eggs). It’s light but it’s pretty filling. I don’t eat meat, so I need something with extra protein.”

Believed to have originated in China about 2,000 years ago, tofu has a bland taste that easily picks up the flavor of the food around it. Tofu comes in soft, firm and extra-firm varieties, depending how much water (whey) has been extracted.

The firm and extra-firm types are ideal for stir-fried and deep-fried dishes, as they have less water and don’t break down. The soft, or silky, tofu is about 50 percent water, so it lends itself well to delicate soups, dressings. marinades and desserts.

In Thailand, Tonverapongsiri said. the tofu is often deep-fried into simple dishes like Stir-Fried Bean Sprouts with Tofu. This dish is a popular street food and is often eaten as a midnight snack.

“In Thailand, they eat tofu with bean sprouts, but in California, I use pea leaves and soybean sprouts,” he said. “For this dish, you have to use a wok. The smell is very important.”

Pescatarians (those with a fish-based diet) in Asia also like to eat seafood tofu, a product that is half fish, half tofu. The seafood tofu is shaped like a scallop and can be pan-fried or deep-fried, then served on a skewer with a sweet and sour sauce.

At Thai Time Asian Bistro, Tonverapongsiri also uses seitan, a meatless product made from wheat gluten. Seitan first appeared in the 6th century as an ingredient in Chinese noodles.

The texture of seitan is so meat-like that in China it is known as “meat without bones.” It is made by kneading wheat gluten into a dough, then rinsing the starch off with water. The gluten dough is then mixed with liquid to turn it into a chewy paste, then molded into small balls. It is sold in cans labeled vegetarian “mock duck” or “imitation chicken.”

The “mock duck” seitan is featured at Thai Time Asian Bistro in the vegetarian version of its Holy Basil entree, and the “mock chicken” is showcased in the vegetarian version of their Pumpkin Curry.

Tempeh, a soybean cake made from fermented, cooked soybeans, was accidentally discovered on the island of Java during the process of making tofu, according to Mei Ibach, who teaches cooking at Homeward Bound, a nonprofit training program in San Rafael.

“They discarded the byproduct, and then it started to ferment,” said Ibach, who is of Chinese descent but grew up in Malaysia. “They tried it and liked it.”

Tempeh later migrated to Malaysia and other Southeast Asian kitchens, where it became a staple of vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.

“It’s our main protein staple in Malaysia, because of the nutritional value,” Ibach said. “It’s cheap, and it’s fresh.”

In Malaysia, most people make their own tempeh by soaking the soybeans, then hulling them and partially cooking them. As a final step, the tempeh is allowed to ferment for 24 to 36 hours, which gives it a yeasty, nutty flavor.

“It has a crunchy texture because the soybeans are still intact,” Ibach said. “And the fermentation adds nutritional value.”

In Malaysia, the tempeh is often stir-fried with a flavorful chile paste, or grilled on a skewer.

As Buddhism spread throughout Asia, the production of tofu eventually spread to Japan, where the Japanese refined the process.

“The Japanese tofu is more fine and silky than the Chinese counterpart,” Ibach said.

In yet another iteration of tofu, the seasoned fried bean curd is used by the Japanese as a tofu wrapper for sushi rice. The Inari sushi is a classic dish served at most sushi restaurants, including Shiso Modern Asian Kitchen in Sonoma.

Shiso Chef/owner Ed Metcalfe also serves Agedashi, a classic hot dish consisting of cubed tofu that’s dusted in cornstarch and fried, then served with bonito flakes and green onions on top, with a tempura dipping sauce.

In the summer, Metcalfe also offers a cold salad made with silken tofu, fresh green onions, lemon juice, ponzu asuce and a bit of bonito flakes.

“You can do a lot with it,” he said of tofu. “You can also make lots of cool desserts, blending the silken tofu with fresh vanilla bean.”


This recipe is from Mei Ibach, who is from Malaysia. The tempeh, tofu, seitan and other Asian ingredients can be found at your local Asian market.

Tempeh Stewed in Coconut Milk and Spices

Serves 6

Spice paste:

1 teaspoon white peppercorns

1½ teaspoons turmeric powder

1-inch fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar (or brown sugar)

2 tablespoons peanut or coconut oil

2 cups thick coconut milk

2 packages tempeh, cut into medium dices

4 cloves

8 ounces spinach leaves and stems

2 teaspoon salt or more to taste

1 green onion, thinly sliced

1-2 red or green chiles, seeded and thinly diced

Make the spice paste by grinding all the ingredients to a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle or a blender, adding two tablespoons of coconut milk to keep the mixture turning.

Preheat the oil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the spice paste mixture and cook over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until fragrant. Stir in the temnpeh pieces and cook for 5 minutes, or until coated.

Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the cloves and simmer for 10 mintues over medium heat. Add the spinach leaves and cook for two more minutes. Season with salt to taste and garnish with freshly green onion and fresh chile for extra spice. Serve immediately.


The following two recipes are from Olarn Tonverapongsiri, chef/owner of Thai Time Asian Bistro of Santa Rosa.

Stir-fried Tofu with Soybean Sprouts and Pea Leaves

Makes 2 to 3 servings

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

1 teaspoon soybean paste

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cups soybean sprouts

2 cups pea leaves

1½ cups tofu, sliced into ½-inch-thick rectangles and fried

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon thin (light) soy sauce

1 tablespoon Golden Mountain Seasoning Sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

In a wok or large saute pan, saute the minced garlic and soybean paste with oil on medium-high heat until aromatic. Add the soybean sprouts, pea leaves and fried tofu. Add oyster sauce, thin soy sauce, seasoning sauce and sugar. Stir quickly until well mixed. Serve immediately.


Holy Basil with Vegetarian Mock Duck (Seitan)

Makes 2 to 3 servings

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

½ tablespoon jalapeño, minced (or 2-3 fresh Thai chilies)

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 can vegetarian “mock duck”

1 cup green beans, cut into pieces

½ cup carrot, sliced

¼ cup yellow onion, sliced

¼ cup red bell pepper, sliced

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 tablespoon thin (light) soy sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons Goldem Mountain Seasoning Sauce

1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

20 to 25 basil leaves

In a wok or large saute pan, saute the minced garlic and minced jalapeño (or Thai chili) with oil on medium-high heat until aromatic.

Add vegetarian mock duck, green bean, carrot and yellow onion until cooked.

Add the red bell pepper, oyster sauce, thin soy sauce, seasoning sauce and sugar. Add basil, stir quickly until well mixed. Serve immediately.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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