A Guide to Traditional Meat Alternatives: Tofu, Seitan, Tempeh
Walk into an American grocery store and chances are you’ll find quite a few different varieties of cheese — dairy milk curds that are aged, fermented and processed in endless ways — but you might find only one or two varieties of the meat alternatives known as tofu, seitan and tempeh, if they even have those products at all. The first thing to understand about these so-called “meat alternatives” is that they are not simply one-dimensional; they, like cheese, have been enjoyed in many, many different time-honored ways and continue to be, as each maker gives these formulas their own signature. Outside of East Asia, where they originate, only a few of those may wind up in a supermarket that doesn’t specifically cater to Asian communities. But in order to provide an overview of tofu, seitan and tempeh, we’ll discuss these broad categories — as well as some of the specific formats.
Next, it’s important to call out a few caveats in calling them “traditional meat alternatives.” For one, these protein-rich foods aren’t just enjoyed as a stand-in for meat — they’re enjoyed for what they are on their own. Just like beans or any other plant-based, protein-rich food (or dairy). But tofu, seitan and tempeh also have a history of usage by people who are actively avoiding meat altogether, for various reasons. For example, the word for seitan, or wheat gluten, in Chinese translates to “wheat meat,” and it is often shaped to resemble types of meat, especially in Buddhist temple cuisine, where meat is restricted. So that’s why I’m calling them “traditional” meat alternatives. It’s also important to note that tofu, tempeh and seitan have been enjoyed for centuries — well before the industrial revolution, food science and tech startup culture made such later inventions as hemoglobin-addled burgers possible.
All told, these three traditional meat alternatives have deep roots within the communities where they have long been enjoyed. And the sky’s the limit when it comes to ways to produce and prepare them. In today’s supermarket landscape, these natural, time-honored plant-based proteins can also offer an alternative to new-fangled meat replacements with less transparent ingredients and processing methods. Most people are aware that a plant-based diet not only comes with health benefits but environmental benefits, as the resources and energy poured into producing meat is far less efficient than those needed to produce nutrient-dense plants. But we’ll explore these ingredients for their environmental and social impacts as well, and advise on labels to look out for when purchasing them.
It might be more helpful to think of the many products that fall under the umbrella of “tofu” as its alternate name, “bean curd.” Because that’s what they all have in common: they are made from soybeans that are cooked, ground and coagulated in a process that strikingly resembles that of making dairy cheese. From there, tofu can be pressed until ultra-dense and dry, or it can be wet and soft to the point of almost being liquid. It has been eaten in China for more than 2,000 years and for several centuries in other parts of East Asia; we get the word “tofu” from its Japanese name, which is derived from its Chinese name, which is pronounced “doufu” — the “dou” representing the word for “bean.”
Fresh of Block Tofu
Fresh, or block tofu has a clean, pure and mild taste of beans. It’s packed in water, and the kind you’ll see in supermarkets has been pasteurized to extend shelf life (make it at home and, like fresh mozzarella, it’ll spoil after just a few days). The various textures ranging from soft to extra-firm denote their water content, from more to less, respectively. Silken tofu, another fresh tofu type, is actually made in a slightly different process than the other blocks of fresh tofu, wherein the soymilk isn’t curdled; it has a silky-smooth texture. With any of these varieties, there are endless uses, from enjoying chilled along with vegetables and rice noodles, to braising in stews, crisping up in the oven, or making a classic, or vegetarian version of the Sichuan dish, ma po tofu.
Enthusiasts of extra-dense, firm tofu might look into the various forms of dry tofu the next time they’re at an Asian supermarket. Called “dou gan” or “doufu gan” (literally “dry bean” or “dry tofu”), these are not sold in water, because much of the water content has been pressed out. Rather, they often come in small squares, sheets, knots and even noodle-like ribbons. Sometimes, they are smoked or braised in soy sauce and five-spice. You can also find fried tofu in blocks or triangles, which have a very porous, sponge-like texture that’s great for soaking up sauces. Or tofu that has been shaped, flavored and/or dyed to specifically resemble a type of meat-based product, such as char sui or fishballs; these are common proteins enjoyed in Buddhist vegetarian communities and restaurants. Fermented tofu is also enjoyed for its distinctive funk; in Taiwan, fried blocks of stinky tofu or “chou doufu,” as it’s known, are a street food specialty. Crumbled, fermented tofu cubes can also be used sparingly to add pungent flavor to sauces and stir-fries.
Tofu skin is a product formed by heating soy milk and instead of coagulating it into blocks, like tofu, it’s the film that rises to the top of the pot. Also known as “tofu sheets” or yuba, its Japanese name, these thin sheets are often prepared by rolling them into a loose, many-layered log, which is great for retaining sauces and flavors. It can also be fried until crisp as a chip.
With any tofu product that isn’t seasoned, there should be very few ingredients on the package. It’s essentially soybeans, water, and then a coagulant, such as calcium sulfate (aka gypsum) and magnesium sulfate (aka Epsom salt) or magnesium chloride (aka Nigari seaweed). These are natural, and harmless, ingredients. They’re often used in combination, so don’t be surprised to see more than one of these unwieldy chemical compounds on an ingredient label.
Sustainability of Tofu
Many tofu brands offer certified organic tofu, made with organic soybeans, which is a great way to avoid harmful pesticides. Many brands will also nowadays bear a label for non-GMO—meaning the soybeans are not from genetically modified crops. Although GMO soybeans are the most commonly grown genetically modified crop in the world, most of those genetically modified beans are destined for soybean oil, livestock feed, and a host of other edible and industrial uses. So if you’re eating processed foods of any kind, from chips and cookies to veggie patties, chances are you’re enjoying GMO soybeans in the form of soybean oil, and perhaps also soy lecithin, a common food additive. On the other hand, soybeans for direct human consumption — like those used in tofu — are more likely to be non-GMO, although GMO beans are becoming more common for these uses, too. In addition, certified organic tofu will always be GMO-free.
It’s also important to note that since just a trace amount of the world’s soybeans go into producing soybeans for tofu or soy milk, these foods are not responsible for deforestation, wildlife habitat destruction, and trade issues associated with soybean production throughout the world. And when it comes to water consumption, soybeans and tofu have a lower water footprint even compared with other legumes, such as lentils or chickpeas.
The word “seitan” was popularized relatively recently, in the mid-20th century by George Ohsawa, the founder of the macrobiotic diet. But the food, which is also known as wheat gluten, dates back to ancient times in China. (In Chinese, its name, “mian jin” translates to “wheat meat”; in Japanese, its name “fu” translates to “gluten.”) And also like tofu, it stands for a broad category of ingredients made with this substance.
Seitan is simple to make and produce at home yourself: you start by kneading a simple wheat flour and water dough to activate the glutens, then you rinse its starches off thoroughly so that only a stretchy mound of protein remains. You can then braise it in a flavorful broth, and slice it up to stir-fry or cook in a multitude of ways. People have enjoyed its chewy texture, which satisfies similarly to meat, and its porous texture, which is great for soaking up sauces.
Some traditional forms of seitan include mock duck, a vegetarian roast duck analogue that’s been soaked in a sweet, hoisin-based sauce and textured to resemble a duck’s skin. Fried seitan is often prepared to resemble meat, and its bubbly texture is ideal for retaining sauces. These prepared types of wheat gluten are often tossed into stir-fries, soups or simply enjoyed on their own. Seitan or wheat gluten can also be leavened and baked until puffy (as in kuruma fu, which is enjoyed in Japan), smoked like barbecue, crumbled like ground meat to cook into stews, fried and soaked with Buffalo sauce, or stir-fried with broccoli.
Sustainability of Seitan
Unlike tofu, seitan is much more commonly seasoned in some way when it is produced and packaged for sale. In that sense, it’s a bit more of a heat-and-serve item, often sold as nuggets, patties, sausages or crumbles. This makes it dummy-proof when it comes to preparation, but if you are buying packaged seitan ready to eat that’s been flavored already (as opposed to making it from flour at home), you’ll want to look at the ingredients for chemical food additives, colorings, and preservatives, just like you might with any processed food.
You will also find many brands that tout organic or non-GMO labels, which applies to the wheat used, as well as any seasonings or oils (fried seitan seasoned with soy sauce, for example, is a common seitan product). Because water is used to both grow the wheat as well as wash the starches away to produce it, seitan production consumes a moderate amount of water — about 500 gallons per pound of seitan. While this is more than some other vegetarian options, it still compares favorably against meats – producing a pound of beef takes nearly 1800 gallons of water, for instance.
This traditional protein of Indonesia is made from whole soybeans that are fermented so that they bind into a cake. Originating in Java, it has been enjoyed in Indonesia since at least the 17th century. It comes in many varieties, lending itself to endless preparations.
The baseline tempeh is made with just soybeans, but other grains, beans and nuts can be added to the soybeans or combined and fermented into similar cakes. A softer, airier type of tempeh known as tempeh gembus incorporates soybean pulp leftover from making soymilk (known as okara in Japanese). Tempeh can also be aged to acquire a stinky, funky flavor, which is known as tempeh semangit.
Traditional ways of preparing tempeh in Indonesia involve deep-frying slices and tossing them with sauces, such as kecap manis or sambal goreng. But it’s incredibly versatile, and can be stewed, steamed, baked, crumbled, or stuffed into dumplings. In Indonesia, it’s also enjoyed grilled on skewers, where it is known as sate kere, or “poorman’s satay.” In the Western world, tempeh is often baked or pan-fried until crisp and used as a replacement for sandwich or burger meat. (Tempeh was popularized in the US by the back-to-land movement of the 1970s, in particular by the Tennessee-based commune, “The Farm.”) But its firm, chunky texture and mild, nutty flavor lends itself to endless adaptations and seasonings.
Sustainability of Tempeh
Since the main ingredient of (most types of) tempeh is soybeans, it shares a similar environmental impact as the various types of tofu. But, like seitan, it is often flavored when sold in packages, and may include ingredients that you’re wary of (or are allergic to!). But even with the additions of grains like rice or barley, we’re not looking at a significant environmental impact.
Adding meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh or seitan to your diet is an easy way to eat less meat or eliminate it entirely. Meat alternatives are all incredibly versatile, variable, and low-impact proteins, since they are based on plants, which are ages-old. Truly, one of the only things to be concerned about when considering adding them to your diet is navigating the negative spin about their deliciousness or sustainability, which is often coming — in the case of discussions about them not tasting good — from people unfamiliar with how to prepare them well or — in the case of arguments that soy is as bad for the environment as meat — from compromised sources (such as the meat industry).
Top photo by Akalong Suitsuit/ Adobe Stock.