Tofu, Tempah and Seitan: The Lowdown

Plant based eating is becoming more and more common in a world filled with concerns about climate change, animal welfare and living a healthy lifestyle. Whilst some people have altered their diets completely and eat only food that is plant based, others dedicate one or two meals a week to the honorable endeavor of preparing meat free, plant-based dishes. When looking for meat alternatives there are three main natural options: tofu, tempeh and seitan. Bought in their most natural form, these come in blocks and pieces, although it is possible to buy them in more processed form – usually in the shape of a burger, sausage or chicken chunk. These three options can be a little confusing and cooking them can take some practice. Let’s get the lowdown on the three so tat you can use them to make healthy and delicious meals for all of the family.


This is the option that you may be most familiar with. It has been around for quite a long time, although for many years it could only be found in health food shops, and now it wis available on pretty much every supermarket shelf. Tofu is made from unfermented soybeans that have been drained, crushed and boiled. The resulting soy ‘milk’ is then strained and the ‘curds’ are used to make tofu. Tofu comes in a variety of forms – soft, silken and firm. This describes how solid the tofu is and different states of solidity are achieved by adding firming agent to the curds. Tofu is versatile and the firm variety can be used as cubed or sliced meat would be, and the softer silken variety is popular as a replacement for scrambled egg. One of the key tips when using tofu – especially the firm kind if you want to fry it like chicken – is to remove excess water from it by ‘pressing’ it. This can be done with a special tofu press, or by simply putting the block of tofu on absorbent kitchen towel and putting a plate and can on top of it. You should aim to do this a good hour before you use it. If the tofu is too wet when you try to fry it, it is likely to break up and you stir it, and this will result in scramble rather than the chunks you were aiming for. 


Popular in Indonesia, and often thought to have originated on the island of Java, tempeh is also made from soyabeans. However, unlike tofu, the beans are fermented before being formed into blocks of tempeh. A ‘friendly fungus’ is used to grow mold on the tempeh and turns the soybeans into a nutty and firm ‘cake’. This process is remarkably quick, and the production of tempeh takes only a few days. Tempah is firmer than tofu and this means that it can be more easily sliced and cubed. This makes it a good choice when it comes to replacing sliced meat in salads or sandwiches. The fermentation process also means that tempeh tends to have more taste than tofu, and this makes it more enjoyable when eaten on its own. My family tend to favor tempeh over tofu mainly due to the more firm and predictable texture that it offers. 


You may have heard the phrase ‘wheat meat’ in restaurants and in the supermarket. Seitan is often given this name because, unlike tempeh and tofu, it does not come from soybeans, but rather from wheat. Seitan is made from wheat dough. The dough is washed to remove the starch leaving a sticky substance that can then be molded into different shapes. Seitan is popular in the production to ‘fake meats’ as it is easy to shape and flavor.