The other non-meat takes center stage
by Bernard Brown
We all know tofu, whether as a food or a punchline, but what about tempeh? Just like tofu, tempeh is a sustainable alternative to animal products. Both are made from soybeans, which are probably the most resource-efficient way to convert sunlight, air and soil into protein, so picking tempeh over animal products saves water, land, greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. The beans, however, go through a very different process to become tempeh—they’re essentially fermented by a fungal culture. I know, the idea of eating something after it’s been worked over by mold isn’t too appetizing, but trust me—or rather, trust millions of Indonesians who’ve been eating it as a staple protein source for centuries.
I’m a huge fan of the softer fresh tempeh, which you can purchase in South Philly corner markets near Hardena (see below), but opinions vary. As my friend Lillian puts it, “I like my tofu soft and my tempeh hard.” Either works great, be it cubed in a stew, chopped or ground up as a hearty base to a sauce, marinated and fried to munch on with ketchup, or stacked in a sandwich such as the classic tempeh Reuben (with sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye).
Philly knows Tempeh
I ventured into our city in search of tempeh. Here’s what I found.
Royal Tavern, 937 E. Passyunk Ave.
I had trouble fitting the Royal Tavern’s tempeh club into my mouth. The South Philly bar’s double-decker sandwich was packed with lettuce, tomato—marinated in soy sauce—and grilled tempeh (layer one), plus smoky veggie bacon (layer two), which itself is made from thinly-sliced tempeh, all on toasted multi-grain bread. Sometimes tempeh can be a little starchy to feature in a sandwich, but here the lettuce and tomato balanced it well. With fries, a pickle and a beer, it was a great low-on-the-food-chain take on a lunch standard.
Hardena, 1754 S. Hicks St.
Tempeh is pretty much just tempeh at Hardena, a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian restaurant at Hicks and Moore. You get a plate of rice and pick what goes over it from the array of dishes behind the counter. I got the steamed vegetables, the collard greens, a large vegetable fritter and a heap of the tempeh, simply fried with thick, sweet soy sauce.
The Belgian Café, 2047 Green St.
Tempeh provides the body for vegetarian dishes at Belgian Café, a Fairmont gastropub. The thick slice of vegan meatloaf was rich with shitake and crimini mushrooms and walnut, crispy on the outside and the inside. In contrast to the earthy meatloaf, the vegan spring rolls were dominated by the carrot and onion inside; the marinated, ground tempeh gave them a hearty base that vegan dishes too often lack. Neither dish screamed tempeh, but they demonstrate how it can work as a sturdier foundation than its squishier cousin, tofu.
Then, I opened my refrigerator to develop a “what’s left in the fridge?” recipe featuring… you guessed it… tempeh.
- 1 brick of tempeh
- 1 tomato
- ¼ cup tahini
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- garlic chili sauce to taste
- parsley for garnish
Cut the tempeh into half-inch cubes. Heat oil in a wok or skillet over high heat and fry the tempeh until it’s golden brown and crispy on the outside (about 7 minutes). Dice tomatoes and add to the cooked tempeh, then turn off the heat. Spoon in tahini and as much chili sauce as you can stand, mix so everything is coated and sprinkle the parsley on top to garnish.