If you live in Asheville, you are most likely used to finding tofu among the items on local restaurant menus regardless of the type of cuisine. Southern barbecue joints; Thai, Caribbean and Mexican restaurants and plenty of others in between all seem to have bowed to the local cultural expectation for that vegetarian option. Tempeh, on the other hand, has been tapped into far less by mainstream culinary establishments.
Unlike the soaking, processing, boiling, straining and coagulating of bean curd that’s involved in the production of tofu, making tempeh is as simple as cooking the beans to desired consistency, cooling them and then inoculating them with a culture. A period of incubation binds them together into a cake which is higher in protein and easier to digest than tofu, and offers B vitamins.
Though the bitter-ish taste of the culture is consistent in the final product, tempeh’s texture can vary drastically: from nutty and crumbly when the beans are less cooked and a scanty amount of culture is used, to a softer, meatier texture when the beans are cooked longer and a larger amount culture is used to inoculate.
Smiling Hara Tempeh, owned by Sara Yancey and Chad Oliphant, has proven to be a local favorite in Asheville, and can now be found in Whole Foods stores throughout the Southeast. Smiling Hara expands the conventional concept of tempeh: Not only is it freshly frozen —to preserve the nutritional benefits, taste, and texture— but it is the only tempeh on Asheville’s shelves that comes in the soy-free varieties of black bean and black eyed pea.
Cooking tempeh well isn’t quite as obvious as cooking tofu, whose unimposing flavor allows it to take on whatever sauce it’s introduced to. With tempeh, its own texture and flavor are big factors in preparing it delectably.
“We like it fried,” says Yancey, “ Pan-fried, it is delicious, and it can be marinated before in a nice soy/ginger/molasses combo…”
Though it has plenty of culinary potential, accessing that potential can take some finesse. The texture isn’t bad on its own, but it gets a hell of a lot better when you add some crisp to it – frying it, or baking it off with a nice glaze of some kind work well. As for the flavor, again, one can get used to it on it’s own, but the bitter element of tempeh demands some sweetness to balance it out. Once you get that base covered, you can explore salty or sour elements such as tamari or various types of vinegars and citrus juices, and get into the umami realm with spices like chipotle, fennel, anise and clove, and cooking with fire.
At the Oct. 13 Epic Tempeh Taco Challenge, the tempeh-finessing was plentiful as 11 local restaurants (including Green Sage, Local Taco, Native Kitchen, Neo Burrito, One Stop Deli, Over Easy Cafe, Rosetta’s Kitchen, Thirsty Monk, Trailhead, Westville Pub and Westvillage Market) competed to delight our palates with the most Epic Tempeh Taco while donating all of the proceeds to MANNA Foodbank.
Smiling Hara donated the all of the tempeh for the event; “As a local food company, we have received incredible support from this community,” says Yancey. “This is our opportunity to give back in a way that speaks to our greatest passion: feeding people.”
So what makes for the best tempeh taco? The one that tastes the best, right? Maybe. But when sampling the cute little mini-tacos from each of these restaurants lined up along the walls at Asheville Music Hall, it was impossible to disregard elements other than just flavor, such as the creativity and ethics that many of the restaurants took into account —going the extra mile to use local apples, organic vegetables and gluten-free or homemade tortillas.
The bottom line of the Challenge was that each restaurant chose the variety of Smiling Hara Tempeh to use (soy, black bean or black-eyed pea), there had to be some vegetable element incorporated and it had to be a “taco.” Beyond that it was a blank slate open to the imagination.
For all the variegated levels local-ness, organic-ness, gluten-free-ness and seasonality, among each contender, there was an equal variety of preparation processes for the tempeh itself. Neo Burrito busted out a crispy, all-American comfort flavor with a beer-battered, deep fried tempeh. Westvillage Market put the flavor in a sweet and spicy West Indian marinade and then sliced it thin and cooked it in a panini press. Rosetta’s deep fried the black bean tempeh and then tossed the crispy morsels in a chili-lime- ginger sauce. The Westville Pub brought the taste of fire with grilled tempeh. Green Sage and Over Easy both came out with their own versions of tempeh chorizo, where they pan-fried it in small cubes. And Trailhead and Local Taco went with Caribbean flair – Local Taco dredging the tempeh in a blackened seasoning and pan-frying it, and Trailhead pan frying in a jerk sauce.
In the end, it was hard to choose a favorite, but the judges settled on the delectable creation from Green Sage, whose black-eyed pea tempeh chorizo delivered a profound umami flavor that came with the ginger/allspice/clove combination and the smoked poblano and pumpkin-seed pesto, and was served on a freshly-made organic corn tortilla with avocado-lime slaw. Splendid.
Creativity and flavor also abounded with the judge’s second-place winner who was also the “people’s choice:” The One Stop served their tacos on shells made from plantains that were smashed and then deep-fried in little discs and then formed into a taco shape. The crispy texture was delivered with a red cabbage-jalapeno slaw and the smokey/sweet bases were covered with their honey-chipotle sauce and chimichurri.
Appealing to a different, but equally valid, aesthetic faculty, was the third-place winner: Neo Burrito’s beer-battered tempeh tacos, served on a flour tortilla with a cucumber-wasabi sauce and pico de gallo with chilis from their garden.
Bringing local food producers and local restaurants together to express their creativity and help end hunger in our community, the Epic Tempeh series is also raising the bar in Asheville for what we can expect in our vegetarian cuisine. Looking forward to more years to come! Kudos to you organizers, donators, and chefs!