There is nothing so heavenly as the taste of just-cooked homemade tofu. Lightly fried in olive oil until crisp and golden, it yields a delicate nutty aroma and a sweet buttery flavor with an inner texture so divinely soft and white it is guaranteed to leave you in an advanced state of food rapture.
Alas, we cannot always have easy access to such sublime gourmet delights — or be friends with the matriarch of a Vietnamese family (my supplier of these thick white slabs of freshly pressed soybean curd). Sourcing tofu in its purest form (from organic, non-GMO, whole soy beans) will help minimize any health or environmental concerns you may have but if you still wish to go soy free, there are plenty of alternatives that will not leave you wanting.
Here are three tasty options to get you started if you are looking to reduce or eliminate soy from your diet.
If you’ve ever ordered the faux meat dishes at your local Asian vegetarian restaurant or picked up a packet of Tofurky slices from the deli section of your supermarket, you’ve already encountered this extremely versatile soy alternative.
Better known as “wheat gluten” or simply, “gluten,” seitan is a high-protein, low-fat option that provides a good source of iron. Its chewy meat-like texture makes it a popular choice for newly fledged vegetarians and those transitioning to the veg diet. Substituting seitan for the meat component of a favorite dish offers an easy way to “veganise” much-loved recipes, and if you don’t divulge the ingredients, it is quite likely your non-veg family and friends may never know that you’ve subtly skewed their favorite meat-based meal in a healthier direction!
Seitan products can be found in the refrigerated or frozen food sections of supermarkets and health food stores. Do check the salt content though if you are concerned about high sodium levels, for although naturally low in sodium, the commercial products may contain a fair amount of this common additive as a flavor enhancer. And, of course, seitan products are a no go zone for the gluten intolerant.
Seitan can be simmered, stewed, deep-fried or stir-fried and will readily take on the flavour of whatever is added in the cooking process. Try soy sauce, tamari, ginger and garlic to make a quick flavorsome Asian stir-fry with your favorite fresh greens. Those in the grip of the northern freeze may find this spicy Seitan vindaloo a comforting winter companion. Or, for the chili-averse, this Seitan pot roast – with tender and delicious seitan, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and onions all swimming in a thick rich gravy – might just be your perfect partner to cosy up with.
2. Hemp Tofu
From the realms of the unexpected comes hemp tofu – yes, that’s right, tofu made from hemp seeds. Hemp seeds are the tiny (sesame seed sized) nutty flavored, edible part of the hemp plant (cannabis sativa). But be not alarmed! There’s no marijuana to be found here; in fact the hemp seed is totally free of THC.
While commercially available hemp tofu is relatively new, the idea of hemp seeds as a source of easily digestible and high-quality protein – used extensively by vegan body-builders for this reason – has been around for some time. Billed as a superfood, the hemp seed is rich in all 10 essential amino acids and is a great source of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids – all good for brain development, heart health and a healthy immune system. Those avoiding soy for environmental reasons will be happy to learn that hemp, as an agricultural crop, is grown without herbicides or pesticides, is sustainable, non-GMO, and contains no known allergens.
Hemp tofu is sold commercially as “Tempt” – made by the pioneering Portland Oregon–based hemp seed food company, Living Harvest – and the wonderfully named artisanal product, “Hemp-Fu”, from the Italian firm, Armonia e Bontà, with its factory in the northern town of Crema, near Milan.
Try a hemp tofu stir fry as a tasty introduction. Or, if you’ve got the hemp seeds and are keen to have a go at making hemp tofu from scratch, you’ll find plenty of instructional videos on the net – including this one on youtube.
3. Legumes ( like lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and other beans)
I have yet to meet anyone who is not enamored of a spicy lentil soup – or dahl as it’s commonly known. Dahl is traditionally served with rice (basmati or jasmine) or Indian breads such as roti, papadams or parathas. A staple food for millions in Nepal and India, dahl is a heaven sent for vegan food lovers everywhere. It is simple to prepare and nutritionally powerful, packed with protein, fiber, iron and potassium – all this just from the lentils – before the spices (traditionally cumin, coriander and chili) are added.
Lentils or split peas (purists can read about the difference here) can form the basis of more meaty dishes too. Here are a few to try: Lentil Meatballs, Lentil Burgers (with kale pesto) and Lentil Tacos.
Chickpeas, another member of the legume family, will take you to the Middle East, inviting you to the Arabian food world of spicy hommus dips and falafels. Chickpeas are a natural cohort to olive oil, cumin and lemon juice – the ingredients of a basic chickpea dip – or hommus. Both falafels and hommus are perfect paired with olives, fresh salads such as tabouli, and the traditional Middle-eastern warm pita flat breads. Just add tall glasses of hot sugary mint tea and you’re away with the sheikhs in Marakesh.
Beans, such as red kidney beans and white lima beans, are a versatile pantry staple and must-have standby for stews, burgers, salads and dips. You’ll find a wealth of inspiration for lentil, bean, and chickpea recipes here, including eight recipes for hommus and other bean-based dips, here.
Armed with these alternatives, you never need look at tofu again – unless of course, a Vietnamese grandmother offers to make it for you.
Image Source: Chickpea Fries