Tempeh Sweet Potato Curry. Or, Adventures in Tempeh Land

I know that I’ve previously alluded on this blog to the fact that I have a weird relationship with tempeh, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really offered an explanation for this.  [Don’t worry, there is a recipe at the end of this post!]

In my pre-gan days I had always been a fan of faux meats as well as other meat “stand-ins” such as tofu.  So although I didn’t learn about tempeh until after I had become vegan, I was excited to try it and figured it would become something I ate regularly, just like tofu.

So imagine my surprise when, the first time I tried tempeh, I HATED it.

I don’t remember the first time I had most foods, or what the first vegan dish I cooked was, or anything like that.  But I vividly remember the first time I tried tempeh.  It was after making the Smoky Grilled Tempeh from Veganomicon (and actually I blogged about it in one of my earliest blog posts!).

A round of applause for the blurry 2008 blog photo please!

Those nice-looking triangles were in fact inedible.  The texture–simultaneously chewy and crunchy–was unexpected and unpleasant.  The flavor of the liquid smoke overpowered and really I just hated it.  [As a sidenote, this was also the only time in my entire life that I have made a recipe by Isa Chandra and not liked it!]

This experience scarred me in several ways.   For one, ever since that day I have been extremely stingy with liquid smoke.  I decrease the quantity by at least half in any recipe that calls for it.  Only recently, nearly 6 years later, have I started to become a bit braver with the smokey-smoke.

Additionally, it was a long time until I tried tempeh again, and I was only brave enough to do it in the form of bacon (I think the tempeh bacon from Peace o’ Pie I described in this post was actually the first time I tried it since the above-described debacle).  And even then, I didn’t like it much.  [As a sidenote, this is the only thing I can remember that I ever ate at Peace o’ Pie that I didn’t like.  Are we sensing a theme?]

I only FINALLY started to enjoy tempeh after having it at Good Karma Cafe in Red Bank, New Jersey, near where my parents live.

Tempeh Land 1Sweet mustard tempeh Love Bowl from Good Karma Cafe

I don’t know what kind of magic the crazy elves who work at Good Karma work on the tempeh but holy hell is it delicious.  I often crave specifically THIS tempeh, but sadly I can only get it when I go down to Jersey.  Even my sister M, who has no love for tempeh (but is definitely on Team Seitan!), is a big fan of this stuff.

At some point, I also acquired a liking for the Tofurkey folks’ maple tempeh bacon.  I don’t buy it often because it can be pricey and because I am pretty good at convincing myself that I should eat less storebought stuff, but I do like it.

The other night, as part of my ongoing but recently revitalized effort to scourge our pantry and freezer, I used some overly long-frozen tempeh bacon to make a “California burger.”  [Isn’t that what restaurants always name a burger with avocado on it?]

Pantry 005Of course, you can’t see the avocado in this photo, but it was there, under the lettuce.  The patty was a Quorn vegan burger that was also floating around the freezer.  [Sidenote: these patties are mediocre at best and they also smell really strongly, and not in a good way, if you microwave them.  I don’t particularly recommend them.  Also, Quorn, why is like 99% of your stuff not vegan?  Possibly take a look at the market and reevaluate who your core audience really is.]  The bun was from Trader Joe’s and also had been living in–you guessed it!–the freezer.

Anyway, it was a very tasty burger, and I was really pleased with how well the tempeh bacon froze and reheated in my cast iron skillet.  And I think I should buy some more of it.

Finally, the other day I made a curry because, also in line with the kitchen cleanout, I had the following items that needed to be used ASAP: a sweet potato, a red bell pepper, one broccoli crown, and a package of…wait for it…tempeh (the SoyBoy 5 Grain variety).

And whaddya know, I liked it!  A rich, silky curry recipe like this could warm me up to just about anything.

Tempeh Land 3

Tempeh Sweet Potato Curry, adapted from a free recipe for “Tempeh Curry with Sweet Potatoes and Green Beans” I once picked up in a Whole Foods somewhere
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Easy variation for gluten-free and soy-free 

1 + 1/2 cup vegetable broth (or water), separated
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp. freshly grated ginger
1 tbsp. curry powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 package of tempeh (8 oz.), cubed (and pre-steamed if desired…see recipe note)
1 13.5-oz. can light coconut milk
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 crown broccoli, cut into small florets (use the stems too!)
1 red bell pepper, diced or cut into small strips
1/4 tsp. sea salt
(optional) a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro
(optional) a few dashes of cayenne pepper (how much will depend on your personal tastes plus how hot your curry powder is)

Bring 1/2 cup vegetable broth to a simmer in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat.  Add onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until onion is tender (about 5 minutes), stirring occasionally.

Stir in curry and cumin and cook for 1 minute.

Add coconut milk, potatoes, tempeh, and remaining 1 cup broth.  Bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook 10 minutes.  Stir in broccoli and bell pepper and return to a simmer, uncovered.  Cook about 5-10 minutes longer, until potatoes and broccoli are tender.  Stir in salt and optional cilantro and cayenne.

Serve over cooked brown or basmati rice.  Enjoy!

Recipe note: Some people like to steam their tempeh before adding it to a recipe like this, to draw out some of the bitterness.  To do this, simply cut the block of tempeh in half and place in a steamer basket over a pot with a little bit of boiling water in it, cover, and steam for 15 minutes or until tender.  Remove tempeh and set aside until it is cool enough to cut into cubes.

Variation: You can also make this recipe with tofu in place of tempeh (keeping in mind that you won’t need to add it until near the end of the cooking process), or with veggies only!  This would be useful for those avoiding gluten and/or soy.

Tempeh Land 2

How do you feel about tempeh?  

What foods you have tried and struggled to like?