New Food Story: Tempeh

When embarking on a vegetarian challenge in 2009, I was curious about different types of meatless protein. I was familiar with a few already (tofu, eggs, dairy, and beans), having enjoyed them for years prior to even considering this month-long vegetarianism. I can make a mean vegetarian chili. I love egg white omelets. I can marinate and grill tofu like a pro. But… what else is out there??

One that I’d heard from many vegetarian and vegan friends of mine was tempeh. Not sure of how to even pronounce it properly, I surely hadn’t a clue as to what this stuff was. As usual, Google had the answer, leading me to the Wikipedia article, which states:

Tempeh… is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form, similar to a very firm vegetarian burger patty…

Like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans, but tempeh is a whole soybean product with different nutritional characteristics and textural qualities. Tempeh’s fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give it a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins. It has a firm texture and an earthy flavor which becomes more pronounced as the tempeh ages. Because of its nutritional value, tempeh is used worldwide in vegetarian cuisine; some consider it to be a meat analogue.

My brain screamed, “Yay! I love soybeans! I’ll obviously love tempeh!”

Speaking of "brain", doesn't the stuff have the same striations as a brain? Weird.

I headed to Trader Joes and nabbed myself a block of plain ol’ tempeh. I hunted down a recipe that simply marinated it in soy sauce for a while, then sauteed it with vegetables like you would a stir-fry. It smelled great and looked delicious! Golden cubes of this mysterious soybean substance, sliced carrots and zucchini, fragrant garlic, dark and gleaming soy sauce… it was seemingly magnificent.

I spooned a helping of the stir-fry atop a nice mound of brown rice.

I took a bite.

I spit it out.

With a look of confusion on my face, I tried another [smaller] bite.

With a look of disgust on my face, I swallowed.

I headed to the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of sriracha, and drizzled some of the delicious spicy sauce om top of my next spoonful.

I unhappily swallowed that bite, grabbed my plate, and proceeded to toss away my meal into my garbage disposal. I finished off the second half of the rice with stir-fried veggies, after picking out every last cube of tempeh and letting the garbage disposal chew it up instead.

Obviously, this was a failure. To this day, I don’t like tempeh. I’ve tried it once since (two fried slices on a sandwich) and still hated it. It’s a texture thing and it’s a flavor thing. The texture is very solid, but particulate. It reminds me of very hard, dry feta cheese that is chewy and tastes like spoiled milk.

I have countless friends who love the stuff, and when I see recipes that include tempeh, the photos show meals that look really good!

For right now, tempeh is not for me. I gave it a try – just like I do with everything – but try as I might, I can’t stand it!

Luckily, I’ll always have beans, tofu, eggs, and [faux] dairy!

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