Tempeh for Tofu-Haters

crispy tempeh

A couple of weeks ago I slid into a rant about tofu. Someone asked me about my daughter’s diet and wanted to know if we feed her meat. I said no and thought I knew in which direction the discussion was heading. I thought the next question would be “But how does she get any iron if you don’t feed her meat?” So I mentioned that we gave her legumes and tofu.

And this is what I learned: If you don’t want to discuss your child’s diet with meat eaters, mention the word “tofu”. It will distract them completely and they will probably no longer want to discuss any harm you are doing to your child by putting it on a vegetarian diet. Instead they will probably rant about how disgusting, tasteless and weirdly textured tofu is.

I have been vegetarian or vegan for the most part of my life, I have a hard time understanding why many people seem to hate tofu “and other meat substitutes” so much. They probably don’t get why I would eat something “bland and weirdly textured” when in fact I am just craving meat. And I don’t get why they think that meat is such an important food. I haven’t eaten it in over 20 years. I don’t miss it. And I don’t see tofu as a substitute for meat, but as an independent food, used in a variety of recipes that are not imitations of meat dishes.

I sometimes think I live on a different planet or speak a completely different language. And I usually fail at explaining that I don’t eat meat not because I don’t like the taste but because I don’t want to eat animals for ethical reasons. I think this has to do with the fact that it is so normal for everyone around me to exploit animals, to use them or their parts as “products” and that they have a hard time challenging this concept. When I try to explain my reasons for being vegan it sometimes feels like there is a big wall between me and the people I am talking to. This feeling has become much stronger since I became a parent.  Almost every time I tell meat eaters that we don’t feed our kid meat, all they ever ask is: “Don’t you think this is cruel?” “Don’t your think she will miss meat or feel left out?” And then they say: “She’ll want to try it one day!” The question “Don’t you think this is cruel?” sounds so absurd to me, when someone first said it, I thought they were making fun of me. But unfortunately they weren’t.

I have given up explaining. I don’t know what to say to questions like this except for a sarcastic “cruel indeed”. But instead I say “We’ll see.”

I wrote down this tofu incident because it made me realize how my discussions to meat eaters have changed over the years. I just don’t want to get into certain arguments anymore. I know my decisions are the right decisions for me and I also think they are the right decisions for our child. I am not going to defend them because I don’t have to.

When it comes to food, I think I found a pretty good strategy to avoid certain arguments. I don’t argue about sausages made from plants vs. “the real thing” anymore. I don’t try to recreate a vegan version of my mother in law’s famous cheesecake anymore.  I simply gave up creating the perfect vegan version of any omni food. If people think they cannot go vegan because they will miss product x too much, I know that it’s not in my power to change their views.

What I can do instead is to offer them food they don’t associate with stereotypes and negative feelings. Many vegans eat so differently from the rest of the population, they know so many awesome foods and recipes, why should they waste their time coming up with “the best vegan version of an omni food”? If instead we draw the attention to something new, people will probably ask about the food and its preparation instead of ranting about how a plant-based sausage is “fake” or how tofu “is just not the same as meat”. At least this has been my experience and I think it has become the basis for most of my recipes.

So if people hate tofu, let them eat tempeh! Most people I know have never eaten it before and sometimes they have never even heard of it. They don’t see it as a meat substitute and I made the experience that they are interested in learning about its preparation and they usually don’t refuse to try it. I also think it is easier to prepare than tofu, because it already has a great taste and texture of its own. There’s no need to press it or even marinate it.

This recipe is great both directly from the oven or served cold with a salad. I think the crispy tempeh and the spicy cilantro sauce go together perfectly.

Crispy Tempeh with Cilantro Sauce (serves 2)

For the cilantro sauce:

1 bunch (40 g) cilantro 2 tablespoons almond butter 2 tablespoons water 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice 1/2 teaspoon smoked salt (or regular salt) 1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder (or more if using regular salt) Place all ingredients in a blender and food processor and process into a sauce. Set aside.

For the tempeh:

200 g (7 oz.) tempeh, sliced into rounds or rectangles (1/2 cm thick)
90 g (3 cups) corn flakes, finely crushed (e.g. in a mortar and pestle)
2 tablespoons cornstarch or tapioca starch
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt black pepper
1 cup cold water

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the corn flakes in a soup plate. In a second soup plate combine cornstarch, paprika, salt, pepper, and water. Whisk to dissolve the cornstarch. Submerge the tempeh slices in the cornstarch mixture and coat in cornflakes. Place on the baking sheet (spray with oil, if you want) and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Serve over rice, with a salad on the side and dip in cilantro sauce.


42 thoughts on “Tempeh for Tofu-Haters

  1. This is such a beautiful post. I appreciate it so much. It is a really different message than a lot of vegan cooking blogs send…and I find it very accessible and wonderful.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Mihl! I love your rants. I happen to hate tofu, but I hate mushrooms too, so it’s largely a texture thing (I do use it pureed in recipes) I don’t see tofu or tempeh (which I LOVE) as meat subs at all. I’m excited to try this now that my kids are gone and I can put cilantro in food!

    We often see articles asking “Is it healthy/right/whatever to feed a child vegan?” There is no doubt the question people should be asking is if it is any of those things to feed a child meat! I also must tell you, I used to have a friend who, upon learning that my dogs are vegan, was upset and said that was cruel. Incredible. You want to know cruel?? Look at the poor animals they’d be eating.

  3. Can’t wait to try the recipe. I, too, have given up some of those old arguments. I became vegan over a year ago for health reasons. I weighed almost 300 lbs. Within 4 months I was at 220. That was enough for me. The longer I was vegan I started questioning the need for animal products at all. For me it went from health to ethics. Omnivores take it as a personal attack that I don’t eat meat. Some appreciate the incredibly tasty dishes I’ve been making. After cooking for a while it has become effortless. It’s hard for many to fathom that vegans are eating way tastier food. It seems like a lie unless you’re vegan. An added benefit (and completely unexpected) was the change in my sex drive. Doubled easily. When people point to their incisors and say ‘why do we have these?’ I’ve started telling them not to worry as we’re constantly evolving.

  4. Oh Mihl, I love this post! So much to say, but I’ll try and keep it short.

    (1) I love your statement about your decisions regarding your family’s vegan diet: “I am not going to defend them because I don’t have to.” I think that’s so important. The best way to avoid a ridiculous (and possibly inflammatory) conversation is by refusing to engage in the first place. Also, it just makes people look unsure of themselves if they’re bending over backwards to defend their decisions, imho.

    (2) This recipe looks delicious – we eat a lot of tempeh, but I still haven’t gotten around to breading it! Something tells me I’m about to check that off my tempeh to-do list.

    (3) My husband and I are raising our daughter N veg*n for both ethical and health reasons. These two reasons are of equal importance to us – neither one trumps the other in our family’s food philosophy. However, they have caused more controversy amongst other vegans we know than our most gluttonous omnivore friends and family. I went vegan at the age of 15 for health reasons, and spent most of the past 25 years diminishing or omitting that fact from others – especially other vegans. Which completely detracts from either point being taken seriously, at the end of the day.

    (4) We have pet rescue chickens, and my husband and daughter eat their eggs a couple of times a week during their laying season. The rest of the time, we feed the eggs back to our chickens. No idea why I just mentioned this, but I guess in the spirit of full disclosure I felt like it warranted mentioning. I do not eat or cook with the eggs, ever. But my otherwise vegan child does, on occasion.

    (5) N is starting public school in a week and a half, and she knows that any food decisions she makes outside of the home are her decisions, not ours. It’s a little bit scary to think about how she may rationalize some of the decisions she makes – but I’d rather she disclose/discuss everything openly with her parents without fear of judgment or punishment, rather than start hiding things from us before she is old enough to fully comprehend what she’s hiding from us in the first place. I’m just so so grateful she doesn’t have any food allergies! A crisis of conscience is much preferred over a trip to the emergency room.

    1. I totally agree with you that she has to make her own decisions. As a new parent the thought that I have to let go and let my child make their own decisions one day is pretty scary. But I guess that’s part of MY learning process. Raising a person, being responsible for them and then let them make their own decisions. I bet you did your best so she can make really informed choices even if those sometimes might not be your choices. To me trust between me and my child would also be much more important than anything else. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Good post. Tofu doesn’t taste anything like animal meat at all. We love tofu for the tofu taste. When I cook up a root vegetable enchilada with a cashew cream sauce, it doesn’t taste like dairy cheese is in the mix it just tastes rich and creamy.
    By the way… I can’t believe someone would actually say it is cruel not to feed your child animal meat. Wow how you could go off on that one eh?

  6. How unbelievably rude! I know the best response is a patient and understanding one, but I think I’d be tempted to say “Oh, I’m sorry, it appears that you think it’s acceptable to judge the way I live my life and am raising my daughter, so I’m going over here now…..”

  7. Looks lovely, and great photos! I also hate explaining why I eat meat/dairy substitutes. If you ask anyone why they like, say, mac and cheese, its because its rich, the texture is good and it probably is attached to a good food memory. The mac and cheese isn’t good simply/soley because it’s made from dairy. I try to explain this from time to time when asked, but I don’t think it’s understood.

  8. Mmm, I’d love to try this! the tempeh looks perfectly crunchy and the sauce sounds delicious as well.
    I’ve also found that non-vegetarians tend to like tempeh more than tofu. Maybe it’s less associated with vegan cooking and meat substitutes and more with Indonesian cuisine and general tastiness. I also suspect some people just don’t know how to prepare it well if they complain that it’s too bland and spongy.

    By the way, thank you so much for your post on sourdough starters! I thought making sourdough at home would be difficult, but with the help of your instructions I successfully made a starter and I’ve already made a few beautiful loaves!

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I feel the same way and get so tired of the questions/comments – so I appreciate you sharing your feelings and a delicious recipe too!

  10. It always amazes me when people who’ve never tried tofu talk about how ‘gross’ or ‘weird’ it is, I even love tofu so much that I have a tofu tattoo!

  11. I’m new to being vegan and I’m also a new mom. My son still eats animal products because I’m still elbow deep in vegan nutrition books, vegan baby books trying to make sure he has the best possible nutrition.My parents really took me to task about being vegan and not feeding meat to my son. They even said they would call CPS. I struggle with it everyday because people call me a hypocrite and say I’m not a “true” vegan since there is yogurt in my fridge. We all make mistakes when we are first learning. I guess I’m wondering why someone would say it was “cruel to not feed a child meat?” I think the whole meat/dairy/animal fashion industry is way more cruel than not feeding a child a product of pain and suffering…but I digress. So for now, I feed my child yogurt because I’m still learning what vegan foods are the most nutricious for my baby. How did you decide to not feed your kids meat? That sounds like a crass question but I’m serious. I had someone in the grocery store look in my kart and see vegan sausage and look at me with my baby in my arms and say ” so you’re already shoving your beliefs down your kids throat?” I was speachless. I want to be vegan and I want to be a mom…How would you have gracefully pushed it aside?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Vanilla Orchid Grower!
      I am sorry you are having such a hard time and have to deal with so much doubt and so many questions. I find it unbelievable how someone could call you a hypocryte. There’s yoghurt in my fridge, too. There even have been meat products in my fridge when my partner still was an omni. I don’t tell him what to put in the fridge and what not. It’s his choice. I am the only vegan in my family and in my household. Our kid is a vegetarian right now and not a vegan. I don’t feed her yoghurt, but she gets formula. I know that veganism can be a struggle in your own family. Everyone makes their own choices and if you are a parent, life suddenly seems to become one big compromise. In my family I am not the only one who makes decisions about what my kid eats. I try to stick to my beliefs the best I can but I also have to factor in my partner’s choices and concerns and we make our decisons together. Not feeding my kid meat was just the way to go for me. My partner went vegetarian when I was pregnant. We decided there would be no meat in our household. I wanted to go further. It’s a compromise. But it’s also a good start. You asked me how I decided not to give my kid meat? I just decided it. It was such a natural decison. I believe it’s the right thing to do.
      You are doing the best you can, and as you said you are still learning. I know how you feel, I bet you want to make everything right, especially when it comes to kids nutrition. Every parent shoves their beliefs down their kids throat, that’s how parenting works. And people who eat meat shove their beliefs down their kids throats, too. They don’t tell them about the meat industry, they don’t help them make informed choices. They just serve them salami slices. And that person in the grocery store? That’s just the rudest thing I ever heard. I am sorry you had to deal with this. If someone would have said this to me, I would probably just replied something like “Hoe dare you? That’s none of your business!” Yeah, I am not great at the gracefully pushing aside thing.
      I am sure you are a great mom and it’s awesome that you want to let your kid grow up in a compassionate environment.

  12. Yes yes yes. I’ve pretty much stopped trying to argue with anyone as well. Feed them something yummy, and see if that works. It’s crazy how people get all worked up about tofu. Every once in a while, when I’m eating out, I’ll be served something with raw, unseasoned tofu – and then I realize that that’s what people think we eat! People basically have no idea how to prepare tofu. Poor them! also, that cilantro sauce looks amazing!

  13. Tofu you is to love you. And now I must buy tempeh. Incidentally, Chaz used to hate tempeh a few years back but he’s one of us now. I bet he’ll be all over the crispy deliciousness here. I’ll report back.

  14. Great post. I’ve only been vegan about three years, but I find the longer I am, the less I try to recreate my old meat meals.

    What I still find amazing is how meat eaters, who seem to think it is their right to judge your decisions about your child’s food choices, call vegans the rude and self righteous ones.

  15. My boyfriend has been complaining to me that we need more cilantro recipes because it always goes bad in the fridge. This is perfect timing!

  16. Yum!! I must try this! Also, I’ve been looking for tips on how to make cornflakes stay on tofu in a similar breading, so I’ll try a cornstarch slurry next time. :-) Thank Mihl, for standing up for ethical vegans everywhere!

    1. I think the trick is to really press the cornflakes onto the tempeh and sprinkle some more on top when they are on the baking sheet.

    1. Ja, mein Freund auch. Ich musste die Sauce ganz allein essen ;) Aber es geht vielleicht auch mit Petersilie oder Basilikum oder einer Mischung aus beidem.

  17. Very good post. I especially like this part: “If people think they cannot go vegan because they will miss product x too much, I know that it’s not in my power to change their views.”

    That is so true. I’ve also come to realize that people won’t switch to a vegan lifestyle because the cheesecake tastes like ‘the real one’ or because there is soy chorizo in the healthfood store. Sure, maybe they try something or buy a cruelty-free product occasionally (which is great, anyway), but for going vegan you need something more than ‘it’s available and it doesn’t taste bad’ (otherwise, Manhattan would be a vegan city). After all, being vegan, let’s be honest, can be inconvenient from time to time, but that’s what it’s all about: Walking the right path, not the convenient one.

    And, vegan food will like anyways never taste like not-vegan food – it’s better and we eat so much more variety. While I really like vegan meat and cheese from time to time, it’s my easy, simple, everyday food that makes me love veganism so much.

    1. Great post, great comment. Being vegan has absolutely allowed me to appreciate simple, beautiful, Incredibly satisfying food.

  18. All so true. Really well put and good to get that message out there. Still, sometimes we muck-around for fun with Omni-re-creations, but ultimately, no excuses, eh? Just get people to try great food without mentioning meat or no meat. I do see a lot of other people doing this too and also know of more and more people who aren’t actually Veg/Vegan but just start not to really eat meat. All good.

    I agree about Tempeh by the way. It’s kind of an easier beast to handle, needing less flavour-injection than tofu. Apparently better for you as well as it’s fermented. If you’re breading and not gluten-free I love Panko too..

  19. Ich finde es auch zunehmend befremdlich, dass immer mehr ‘Fleischersatz’ Produkte auf den Markt kommen oder wie du beschreibst, pflanzliche Produkte als solche deklariert werden.
    Ich frage mich, wer die wirkliche Zielgruppe hierfür ist. Veganer oder Vegetarier können es eigentlich nicht sein, da sie nicht mit Fleischersatz überzeugt werden müssen.

    Ich denke mittlerweile, die Zielgruppe sind Omnivoren, die endweder ihren Fleischkonsum reduzieren oder ebenfalls ‘aussteigen’ wollen. Ob allerdings in Hähnchen-, Enten- oder Garnelenform gebrachte pflanzliche Produkte dafür das Richtige sind, bezweifle ich irgendwie.

    Allerdings würde der Zweck die Mittel heiligen. Wenn das Ergebnis eine Reduzierung des Fleischkonsums mit sich brächte, wäre das gut. Ein positiver Aspekt ist außerdem, dass dadurch vermehrt in die entsprechende Forschung investiert wird.

    1. Ich würde schon sagen, dass auch Veganer_innen und Vegetarier_innen die Zielgruppe sind. Es gibt ja auch sehr viele verschiedene Ersatzprodukte und so ist dann für jeden was dabei. Diese Garnelen oder Hähnchen finde ich allerdings auch skurril oder sehe das mehr als Witz. Aber eine vegane Currywurst oder einen Burger esse ich mal ganz gerne. Witzigerweise esse ich jetzt manchmal mehr “Fleischersatz” als früher, wahrscheinlich auch weil ich jetzt öfter auf Convenience zurückgreife als früher. Aber richtig viel ist es immer noch nicht. Und nicht weil ich Fleisch vermisse, sondern einfach, weil ich manchmal Lustr drauf habe.

  20. Tempeh finde ich auch sehr lecker! Und irgendwie ist es perv…, dass wir versuchen Leid zu vermeiden, was für die Umwelt tun und uns dafür auch noch “ständig” rechtfertigen müssen. Ich sehe auch oft “die Mauer” zwischen mir und anderen, aber man kann nur immer wieder versuchen Stein für Stein da rauszupicken. In Berlin hat das 89 auch schon mal geklappt ;)

  21. Tofu ist ja eigentlich schon uralt und aus Asien, also so ein Ersatzprodukt ist es eigentlich gar nicht. Eher, weil wir es zu einem “machen” ^^
    Mit Tempeh bin ich leider noch nicht wirklich warm geworden, aber sieht lecker aus!

    1. “Tofu ist ja eigentlich schon uralt und aus Asien, also so ein Ersatzprodukt ist es eigentlich gar nicht.”


      That tempeh looks amazing!! I have almost everything I need to make it, too. :)

  22. I find I prefer the vegetable as they are sometimes. i make a complicated meal and the mushrooms are the best part.Crispy crunchy bread I could never pass up.french fries are a nice treat.I can honestly say I don’t miss meat. Thank God for the internet and all the home cooks who have generously contributed.Thank you for helping me make a delicious meal.

    1. Thank you for your nice comment! You are totally right about the internet. There are so many great recipes out there. And crispy bread is the best!

    2. You are so right! When I ate meat, I always added many vegetables in the mix because I wanted the meal to taste better. I never ate just plain meat without some sort of seasoning (that sounds so gross now). I crave fruit, vegetables, tasty bread :-). They key really is to let go of attempts to make vegan versions of omni-meals and embrace what fantastic meals you can make. I just love all these blogs created by smart compassionate people!

  23. Great point about not trying to create a perfect vegan version of an omni food! That is why I love ethnic foods (specifically Indian, Asian, African, Mexican), they are not based on dairy and often are vegan already – so require little substitution. People don’t look at you funny, they just try it because its a new meal idea that they don’t have a preconceived idea to contrast with – like “tofu lasagna” or something equally horrifying. ;)

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