Tempeh Biryani

May  5, 2021
1 Ratings
Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Sam Seneviratne.
  • Prep time 50 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Serves 3 to 4
Author Notes

On the Indian subcontinent, the rice-based dish is almost sacred. Dare to call anything without mutton (or, at best, chicken) a biryani and you’ll hear “It’s a pulao!” before you can even finish the sentence. I tried it once on Instagram. That it boosted the engagement on my post was a bonus, but only a digital writer will understand that. For everyone else, a biryani with mutton is the real deal, and everything else is just a rice-based side dish.

While potato is a regular feature in Kolkata-style biryanis, it is always accompanied by juicy chunks of lamb, and I'm a vegetarian. Then there's paneer biryani, but that's too mainstream for my liking. So one leisurely Sunday morning, I tried my luck with tempeh. Tempeh is essentially richly textured, fermented chunks of soybean; the reason it works well as a protein in a biryani is because of its intrinsic ability to absorb flavor. Unlike peas or carrots, tempeh gets denser when you cook it, and it can slurp up a lot of marinade within a short period.

In the Mughal period—one theory says biryani originated in their royal kitchens—vegetarians who mingled with the court, especially the Kayasthas or the Rajput kings, always sneaked vegetarian meat alternatives into Mughlai dishes. Take, for instance, raw jackfruit recipes that lead us to beautiful biryanis, raw banana and moong dal that were folded into kebabs, and wheat gluten used to make keema, or ground "meat." So there was one thing I was certain of (and that gave me courage when developing this recipe): North Indian cooking had a history of dabbling with faux meats long before the term became trendy.

Ordinarily, while cooking a meatless biryani, I'd marinate the vegetable (mostly raw jackfruit) for a few hours and cook it exactly like mutton, sautéing and then finishing it with parboiled rice. However, to make a tempeh biryani, I added one extra step: I grilled big chunks of marinated tempeh to supplement my biryani base, ensuring they were fully done and wouldn’t leave a raw aftertaste.

While traditionally a Lucknowi-reminiscent biryani would be cooked in a dum pukht style, tightly sealed in dough so no steam can escape, this tempeh biryani is a fairly simple affair. The tempeh is precooked, and so finishing everything together with the lid-on method will do the trick. Though it's simple, this biryani certainly isn't light on flavor—notice how the smokiness of the tempeh from the grill pan mixes with the fresh notes of rosewater to vie for your attention.
Sonal Ved

What You'll Need
  • 1 cup yogurt (or coconut yogurt)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons peeled grated ginger root
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons garlic paste
  • 1 tablespoon biryani masala
  • 1 tablespoon garam masala
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup cubed tempeh
  • 1 cup basmati rice (washed)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup sliced onions
  • 3 tablespoons ghee (or coconut oil)
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 (1-inch) sticks of cinnamon
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 1 small tomato, very finely chopped or grated
  • 1 pinch saffron soaked in 2 tablespoons warm milk (or almond milk)
  • 1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
  1. In a medium bowl, mix the yogurt with the ginger, garlic, ground spices, and salt. Whisk well, add the tempeh, and toss to coat thoroughly. Allow the tempeh to marinate for 40 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, parboil the rice until it is about two-thirds of the way done (about 15 minutes), drain well, and set aside.
  3. Heat the oil in a medium pan over medium heat and cook the onions until well browned on both sides, about 20 minutes.
  4. Pull out the tempeh cubes (reserving the marinade) and grill them on a grill pan over medium heat for 20 minutes, until crispy on the outside.
  5. In a heavy-bottomed vessel, heat the ghee over medium heat and add all the whole spices. Once they begin to crackle, add half of the browned onions and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomato and sauté for another 2 to 3 minutes over a low flame.
  6. Add the reserved marinade and cook for 6 to 7 minutes more. If the mixture is too dry, add a few tablespoons of water.
  7. Add the tempeh to this mixture and stir to coat. Cook for another minute on medium heat.
  8. Layer the pot with the parboiled rice and tempeh. Drizzle with the saffron milk and rose water (if using) and top with the remaining browned onions. Cover the pot with a heavy lid and allow the rice to cook thoroughly (about 5 minutes over low flame).
  9. Garnish with chopped cilantro and mint. Serve hot.

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