Going meatless with tofu, tempeh and seitan
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.