Not just for vegetarians

Bean beginnings: Sarah Yancey of Smiling Hara Tempeh prepares soy beans for incubation. Max Cooper
Bean beginnings: Sarah Yancey of Smiling Hara Tempeh prepares soy beans for incubation. Max Cooper

For 48 hours, Sarah Yancey tends her tempeh as it forms. It starts out as a bag of soybeans; as it ferments, fine white threads of fungus envelope the beans until they're covered up. “It starts off like a spiderweb,” she says. “You'll just see it get thicker and thicker and whiter and whiter until it turns into a solid white block.”

When the tempeh is done, she fries it in bacon fat.

Smiling Hara Tempeh is vegan. But Yancey eats meat, in moderation. With her business partner, Chad Oliphant, she's working to reach a market of both omnivores and vegetarians.

“[Tempeh] has been pigeonholed as a meat substitute,” Oliphant says. “If you wrapped it in bacon and threw it in the oven, would you consider it a meat substitute?” He recommends this preparation, by the way.

”No longer weird”

Tempeh is basically a block of fungus-covered soybeans, although Smiling Hara also makes soy-free versions from black beans and black-eyed peas. It tastes a lot like a yeasty shiitake mushroom. Its reputation as a meat substitute comes from its dense texture and high protein content, which can rival that of beef.

In the Far East, plant-based proteins have been around for centuries. In the U.S., soybeans weren't grown in significant numbers until about 1920, when the American Soybean Association formed.

Today, most grocery stores carry tofu, tempeh and often seitan, made from the protein in wheat. Smiling Hara is on the shelves in Southeastern Whole Foods stores, and select Ingles stores carry peanut butter-baked tofu from Rosetta's Kitchen.

Amy Lanou, an associate professor at UNC Asheville, studies how people relate to plant-based diets. In pockets of the country, Lanou says, skepticism about plant proteins is diminishing. “In the '80s, which is when I was in high school and college, they were considered weird,” she says. “They are no longer weird.”

In Asheville, it's easy to think of seitan and tempeh as mainstream. After all, The Laughing Seed has been serving vegetarian fare for decades, and many local restaurants offer plenty of vegetarian choices. But in more rural areas, the trend is spreading slowly. “I think there's a lot of places where soy milk would still feel alternative; Asheville is not one of them,” Lanou says. “I suspect that even south of Hendersonville, you would start to feel that again.”

Plenty of consumers still see soy as an alternative source of protein, a substitute for meat.

In a recent trial, Lanou and her students investigated how to support omnivores in making the switch to a vegetarian lifestyle. “One of the families that participated called everything fake: 'It's fake meat. It's fake milk,'” she says. “I think it adds to the sense of deprivation — that you're having this other thing rather than the thing that you want.”

But even though the family called plant-based protein fake, they completed the three-month trial, and they plan to continue to avoid meat in the future. Which raises the question: Is there anything wrong with thinking of tempeh and tofu as fake meat?

Veggie dog to the future

Pamela Lalik is a vegan for animal-rights reasons, but she still enjoys a veggie dog now and again. “I'm not a purist in the sense that I don't eat fake hot dogs,” she says. “If it serves as a bridge, that's cool. If they want to view it as chicken, that's cool.”

With partner Scott Myers, Lalik heads up Wingbean, a vegan meal delivery service. She's the culinary half of the team. She makes her own seitan and uses it as a stand-in for meat in traditional dishes such as beef stroganoff and lemon-pepper chicken with rice. “We still eat according to our culture,” Myers says. “We have a lot of meat-centric dishes.”

Keeping the cultural importance of food in mind, Pamela endeavors to forge an emotional connection between her meals and her customers. “Food has a connective memory to it,” she says. “I want to have foods that people have grown up with.”

Her customers are familiar with seitan and tofu, even though the majority of them aren't vegetarian. If they want to think of them as meat, Lalik doesn't pass judgment. “Tempeh and seitan are not at all alike, but neither are a chicken and a pig,” she says. “I think ‘proteins’ is a good term for it.”

For Myers, plant-based proteins represent the next culinary frontier. While foods such as tofu and tempeh have ancient origins, they’re still somewhat unexplored in fine dining atmospheres. “I’m a futurist at heart. I’ve always loved the idea of space food,” Myers says. “There are so many different things we can do with vegetables and chemistry.”

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