Tempeh is a fermented soya bean cake originating from Indonesia and is a food I grew up with – one of my favourite childhood dishes in Malaysia was deep fried tempeh and ikan bilis (a tiny salted anchovy), mixed together in a sweet stick chilly sauce – and I was so surprised to see it hailed as a vegetarian superfood in the West. I think it is a wonderful vegetarian meat alternative – it has a nutty, yeasty flavour and chewy texture but is relatively neutral so it works really well in sauces. Although it is made from soya beans, they have been fermented, which reduces the anti-nutrients and makes them much more digestible, while increasing the quantity of vitamins and minerals. Unlike most fermented food, tempeh does not have a long shelf life as it continues to ferment and sporulate, so it is best eaten fresh and kept frozen.
Tempeh is used wonderfully in gado gado, an Indonesian blanched vegetable salad typically made with potatoes, spinach, deep-fried tempeh, boiled eggs, bean sprouts, cucumber and green beans, and smothered in a rich, sweet and spicy peanut sauce. It’s fresh from the only-just-blanched vegetables, with crunch on offer from the beansprouts and cucumber. The spicy, sweet, sour sauce on top is rich but not overwhelming – it’s a satisfying meal for lunch or dinner. In this Paleo version I’ve swapped the peanuts for cashews, which still complements the Southeast Asian flavours, and I used vegetables I happened to have in the house.
Ingredients. Serves 4.
For the cashew sauce:
- 250g cashews, soaked for 2-4 hours
- 5 dried chilies, chopped into pieces and soaked in hot water
- 2 tbsp. tamarind pulp (with seeds), soaked in hot water
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 inch turmeric root, peeled and sliced
- 1 thumb’s length galangal, peeled and sliced
- 1 lemongrass stick, outer leaves discarded, and sliced
- 5 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp. coconut oil
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 1 dsp. palm sugar
For the vegetables:
- 200g tempeh, thinly sliced and coated in 1 tsp. turmeric powder and ½ tsp. salt
- 2 carrots, cut into batons
- ½ swede, cut into batons
- 150g green beans, topped and tailed and cut in half
- ¼ white cabbage, shredded
- 2 handfuls bean sprouts
- 1 cucumber, deseeded and cut into batons
- 4 eggs
- 1 tbsp. coconut oil
Method. Preparation time: 30 minutes. Cooking Time: 1 hour
- Turn the oven to 180C and put the wet cashews straight in the oven; no need to allow the oven to preheat. Keep an eye on them but they will need around 45 minutes to dry out and brown evenly.
- Chop the dried red chilies into pieces, place in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Place the tamarind pulp in a separate small bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to soak while you prepare the ingredients for rest of the sauce.
- Place the garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, shallots and soaked chilli pieces (leaving behind as many seeds as you can in the water) in a food processor, blender or an immersion blender jug. Blend until smooth.
- Melt the coconut oil in a wok on a medium-high heat and when hot, add the spice mix and turn the heat down to medium-low. Leave to cook until the spice mix turns a couple of shades darker and the oil starts to seep through. Add a large splash of the coconut milk, mix thoroughly and cook until the oil comes through again. Add the rest of the coconut milk, stir well.
- The cashew nuts should be done by now so take them out, place in a food processor and grind finely. Add the cashews to the sauce, mix well. The sauce will look very dry; add some water (about 100 ml) to loosen the mix.
- Strain the tamarind seeds through a sieve straight into the sauce. Stir in the palm sugar and taste. It should be a little sweet and a little tangy. If it needs a little more sour, push down on the seeds to extract as much of the thick pulp as possible into the sauce. If it’s too sour, add a little more coconut milk and some more sugar. Stir well and keep the heat on a low simmer while you prepare the vegetables. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get too thick; add water if is starts to dry out. It should be the consistency of a thick curry.
- Boil your eggs for five minutes; once the time is up, leave them in the saucepan while you cook the vegetables.
- Blanch the carrots, swede, green beans and cabbage one by one for three minutes; as you finish each one place in a bowl of iced water to stop them overcooking and retain their bright colour.
- To cook the beansprouts, place in a saucepan and pour over boiling water. Leave for 30 seconds, then drain the hot water out.
- Peel the eggs, cut into halves or quarters and add to the platter along with the cucumber batons.
- Finally, heat a tablespoon of coconut oil in a large frying pan, and when hot add in the slices of tempeh. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Remove and drain on a piece of kitchen paper, then add the tempeh to the vegetable platter.
- Allow everyone to help themselves to the vegetables and pour a ladleful or so of hot cashew sauce over them.
- If you can’t find galangal, use ginger; and you can use a teaspoon of turmeric powder if you can’t find turmeric root. You can also use tamarind paste instead of tamarind pulp, but use a teaspoon and taste the sauce for sourness. The sauce shouldn’t be sour, but there should be a slight tang.
- Use whatever seasonal vegetables you have available; the only vegetables I think are essential are the beansprouts and cucumber. The tempeh is important too, and well worth seeking out.
Edit: Someone asked me where to get tempeh from. I get mine from Chinese supermarkets. I don’t really know where the soya beans are sourced from or where it’s made so if you’re worried about that, you can get guaranteed high quality stuff from Planet Organic, As Nature Intended or Whole Foods.