The Star of My Kitchen? This Do-Anything Plant-Based Protein

One Indian food writer’s journey to getting familiar with—and absolutely loving—tempeh.

May  6, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Sam Seneviratne.

Vegetarians spend a large part of the day trying to figure out ways to add more protein to their diet. Even for an Indian vegetarian, whose average meal is more or less balanced—carbohydrates from roti or rice, vitamins and minerals from sabzi, and protein from dal—it can be exciting to move beyond lentils and sprouts in search of more protein.

Beyond the everyday staples above, the most obvious vegetarian choice of protein across the country is paneer, followed by tofu and soy granules. I like to crumble ample amounts of tofu in my morning burji (a spiced scramble of sorts) and make keema out of soy granules, sometimes stuffing it into a samosa to make a quick snack. I turn chickpea mash into kebabs, saving paneer for rich vegetarian kormas and saags. But with so much noise around dairy (for reasons related to human health and animal welfare), the lack of availability of homemade tofu, and the fact that soy granules always come out of a cardboard box, meeting tempeh has changed the game for me.

Tempeh wasn’t such a big part of my Indian kitchen until two years ago, though it has been around since the 1800s. Originating in Java, tempeh has long been an important part of the Indonesian meal. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when a few artisanal tempeh makers started selling it in small quantities, that it became accessible for urban cooks in India.

Essentially made out of fermented soybeans and sometimes also chickpeas, tempeh in India is experiencing a slow but sure boom. Case in point is the new wave of small-batch tempeh brands popping up everywhere from Bengaluru to Mumbai, from Tempe Wala to Health on Plants, Hello Tempayy to Tempe di Mumbai.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Simply love tempeh though I have to admit I have not used it very much in Indian cooking. Any recommendations for which brands make the best Tempeh in the US? I miss the "fresh Tempeh" we had access in East Asia. The US versions while tolerable are a far cry from those. It would also be really nice to see some Indian recipes adapted to using Tempeh and how to prepare it therein. ”
— StrawberryShortcake

Tempeh is dense and toothsome, but without the meat-like chew that processed faux meat products often have (and which many vegetarians, like myself, don’t quite love). And as far as I’m concerned, if I can find a plant-based protein that will absorb flavors, won’t break down while grilling and charring, and will bring a hearty texture into my dish, then it’s a worthy contender to add to my repertoire; with it, I can make Indian dishes such as Kashmiri rogan josh, Rajasthani laal maas, Himachali mutton rara, and others that feel impossible to replicate without the addition of meat.

Another big plus of tempeh is that, like meat, it has an ability to hold on to whatever you roll it in. To make a Tangra-style chicken, for example—without the chicken, of course—I toss it with chiles and soy sauce. Tempeh also crumbles well to make flavorful kebabs, and it can be cooked with lots of spices and wrapped in paratha like a Kolkata-style kathi roll.

But to me, the best part of adding tempeh to an Indian meal is its nutritional benefits. While India ranks top when it comes to a vegetarian population, with 38 percent of the country abstaining from meat, according to a 2017 survey, 73 percent of that vegetarian population is deficient in protein. While tofu contains 8 grams of protein, and paneer is at 14 grams, tempeh’s protein content is a whopping 19 grams per 100 grams, and therefore it is my go-to. Besides, it is loaded with calcium and B-12, and is high in fiber and low in carbs, giving it an edge over other plant-based proteins.

An average batch of tempeh is fermented for two days before it reaches you, and while tang can take a while to get acclimated to, it is actually a big draw—tempeh is full of probiotic bacteria that supports gut health. Though Indian cuisine is loaded with fermented sides like pickle and condiments, it is tough to find a chunky main that gives you all these benefits in a single ingredient—that’s what makes tempeh a keeper in my kitchen.

How do you use tempeh in your meals? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • StrawberryShortcake
  • dinner at ten
    dinner at ten
  • Sonal Ved
    Sonal Ved
  • BOStempeh
  • mads
Sonal Ved

Written by: Sonal Ved

Author of Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? & Tiffin


Simply love tempeh though I have to admit I have not used it very much in Indian cooking. Any recommendations for which brands make the best Tempeh in the US? I miss the "fresh Tempeh" we had access in East Asia. The US versions while tolerable are a far cry from those.
It would also be really nice to see some Indian recipes adapted to using Tempeh and how to prepare it therein.
Sonal V. May 9, 2021
Check out bostempeh.com, although I haven't tried it being here in India, it seems like a good choice. Since the trend is so new in Mumbai, India, there are few but some outstanding fresh tempeh options available. I looked up the Bos Tempeh website for you and quite liked it :) I hope this helps!
Thank you for this u will look them up! I didn't realize you are based out of Bombay. Would you be able to share brand / website recommendations for Indian vendors ? I'd love to share them with family 🙂
Family are in Delhi !
Sonal V. May 11, 2021
All India vendors hyperlinked in the story above :) I hope it helps!
BOStempeh June 7, 2021
Thanks so much, Sonal for the recommendation. Yes, our tempeh is made-to-order and we ship nationwide (all 50 states in the States). Always fresh authentic unpasteurized ^_^
[email protected]
BOStempeh June 7, 2021
Hi @StrawberryShortcake, if you are interested, orders can be placed online at www.BOStempeh.com.
Only freshly harvested authentic unpasteurized tempeh is shipped to our customers nationwide. For additional questions, email us at [email protected]. Stay healthy!
dinner A. May 6, 2021
I could not disagree more with the statement that "vegetarians spend a large part of the day trying to figure out ways to add more protein to their diet." The idea that a vegetarian diet is in danger of being too low in protein is out-of-date and damaging and I am disappointed to see it voiced yet again in this article. I for one, a vegetarian since early childhood, have spent exactly no time thinking about how to eat more protein (including during my time as a regional-champion competitive swimmer). The preponderance of evidence is that people who eat a 'Western' diet including meat usually eat too much protein (among other problems). Certainly you can eat an unhealthy version of a vegetarian diet, full of processed low-nutrition food and sugar, but a varied vegetarian diet based mostly in whole foods will generally have a good balance of nutrients. There is a significant amount of protein in many foods, including grains and vegetables, not just legumes, eggs, dairy etc.
The article the author links to that claims an alarming deficiency in protein among Indians is not based in current medical science (it is in Forbes, which I would not consider a reliable source for reporting on science and medicine). The Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine suggests an intake of 0.8 g protein per kg body weight per day, which works out to about the average protein intake for Indians cited in that article. Insufficient calories and generally nutrient-poor foods are much more likely to be the problem.
mads May 6, 2021
I had the exact same reaction upon reading this - it is an outdated and harmful myth to perpetuate that vegetarians/vegans are routinely lacking enough protein in their diets.
David T. May 8, 2021
Ummm.. A large population of i. India is poor. Their diet is not always varied and often the main staple is rice.. Maybe some Dahl and a vegetable thrown in. Thats fact. So yes a good portion of the Indian population is deficient in protein for that reason. And tempeh would be a good addition to protein options. Thats it.. Thats all that was said.
The article examines the lack of protein in the indian vegetarian diet - not just any vegetarian diet. Indian vegetarians donot eat eggs or soy for the most part, and so their sources of protein are mostly lentil, legumes and cottage cheese (if they can afford it). It's key to understand what the indian vegetarian diet looks like (including the kind of greens and grains eaten by the majority of vagetarians and the cooking methods) to truly get the context for the protein concerns.
Sonal V. May 9, 2021
Thank you David, for pointing this out! While you are some what correct, this lack of protein choices is common in the urban population too. This is largely because of lack of awareness about what other choices one might have. The purpose of this article to talk about a new protein variant now available in India and how easily it can use used in Indian recipes.
dinner A. May 11, 2021
I am well aware of what an Indian vegetarian diet looks like. You don't need to eat eggs or soy to have a healthy vegetarian diet. The misconception is that protein really is such a concern for anyone. If you read the article the author linked to, the amount of protein provided by the typical diets (that was presented as being alarmingly low) was well sufficient according to the RDA (which comes from the National Academy of Medicine (and in fact only slightly below the target amount stated in that article).
dinner A. May 11, 2021
If someone's diet is mostly white rice and/or insufficiently caloric, it is going to cause a lot of deficiencies before protein.
dinner A. May 11, 2021
And in direct reply to Sonal, I like tempeh! And it is great if you want to make more people aware of it. As above, I do object to your starting out your article with an inaccurate and sweepingly sensationalistic frame ("Vegetarians spend a large part of the day trying to figure out ways to add more protein to their diet")