“Do you carry tempeh?” I asked, not fully prepared for the puzzlement at the other end of the line. There was a short pause from the chipper sounding employee at our local GU Family Market (formerly known as the Topps Friendly Market, and before that, the Grand Union). As for much of America, the Fourth of July in our town means meat blackened on the bar-bie. All day people were likely rushing into the little market to restock on burgers, hot dogs, buns, and condiments. And some lady on the phone wanted to know if they had what?
“Dog food?” the woman asked.
“No, it’s for people,” I said, trying to think of the most concise way to describe what tempeh is to someone who probably never considered eating fermented soybean cake.
“Tempo?” She tried, her voice still friendly.
“T-E-M-P-E-H.” I knew I could drive half an hour to a larger town where the Hannaford carries tempeh in vacuum-sealed packages, right next to the tofu. But there wasn’t much time between now and grill time, and I needed to get the meat-replacement marinating or it would just be a bland yet slightly bitter, chewy block.
“It’s sort of like tofu,” I said.
“I’ll check with the produce manager,” she said with some relief. I realized I hadn’t even told her what department she might transfer me to and she was running them down: the pet food aisle? over the counter medicines? “I’ll ask her what kinds of tofu we have.”
“But it’s not tofu,” I said, barely suppressing a whine as the futility of my phone call sank in. It did seem possible, however, that a package or two of tempeh might be lurking near the tofu blocks and organic boxed lettuce. The GU has far surpassed its previous two incarnations in terms of quality of food as well as catering to an occasional vegetarian.
In the end, Wayne generously agreed to drive half an hour to a bigger metropolis and fetch me the Indonesian staple. We have an influx of downstate visitors in the summer around here and apparently enough year-round people dabbling in vegetarian cooking to warrant tofu, but we haven’t quite entered the realm of tempeh. And the truth is, tempeh is not likely to fly off the shelves in most places.
It’s one of those foods that I used to eat just because it’s healthy and not out of any sense of pleasure. It’s an excellent source of protein and soy in this form is the easiest for the body to process. But often it is presented in dry, flavorless strips with some kind of sauce attempting to render it palatable.
The trick I learned is cutting and then steaming it first to make it amenable to marinating and then using a marinade with some kind of acid to penetrate its musky soul. I use additional water so that the whole block is at least partially immersed in sauce and some sweetener to counteract the slightly acrid notes. In this recipe, two very American traditions elevate the tempeh from vegetarian staple to meat-eater friendly fare: Buffalo wing style sauce and grilling. My dear friend Brenny goes so far as to say that no one would miss chicken after eating these tempeh triangles.
Americans, start your grills. And let me know.
Buffalo Tempeh Wings
- Two 8-ounce packages tempeh, cut into triangles
- 6 TBS Frank’s Red Hot sauce–original
- 1-1/2 TBS butter, melted
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 TBS agave syrup or sugar
- Steam tempeh triangles for 10 minutes (on the stove or in the microwave, as you might steam veggies)
- Make the marinade: mix the hot sauce, melted butter, water, and sweetener in a cup or small bowl.
- Pour the marinade over the tempeh and toss the triangles gently to fully cover. Marinate for at least an hour.
- Grill the triangles on top of a sheet, pan or other grilling device designed for veggies to keep your “wings” from falling into the grill. Turn a few times, watching to make sure they don’t get too blackened.
Note: Any potentially harmful microbes in raw tempeh (not usually alive in the varieties found in grocery stores) are already well dead after the steaming, so the grilling is just for flavor and texture. When it looks done to you, it’s done!
For saucier wings, increase sauce: 1/2 cup + 1 TBS Red Hot, 2-1/4 TBS melted butter, 1 TBS agave nectar, 1/4 cup water. Reserve some of the sauce before marinating and pour it on after grilling or baking the tempeh. Saucy!