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Meat Replacements

Adapted from the wonderful and hilarious book by Mark Warren Reinhardt,
The Perfectly Contented Meat-Eaters Guide to Vegetarianism (Continuum 1999). 

“I’d really like to be a vegan, but I could never give up my burgers.” Actually, you can, and you will be glad you did! It is easy to enjoy healthy and tasty meat substitutes and feel good about what is on your plate.

There are three tried and true meat alternatives that will proudly provide an alternative for meat on anyone’s barbecue grill or dining room table. Not surprisingly, all three of these foods are Asian, they’ve been around for thousands of years, and, of course, they probably weren’t developed as “substitutes” for anything. These three foods just happen to have many of the same properties that meat does in terms of their texture, calorie density, etc. So they do a great job of filling that all-important middle zone of your plate.

Meat Alternative #1 – Tofu (the great unknown white blob)

Yeah, you know tofu. It’s the butt of all vegetarian jokes. Actually, tofu is soybean curd, whatever that may be. You’ve seen it on the menu when you go out for sweet and sour “pork” at the local Chinese joint. Of course, you never even thought of ordering it—except maybe to pull a joke on your friend Ernie while he’s in the men’s room.

You’ve also seen tofu at your local supermarket. It’s in the plastic packages at the back of the produce section—just next to the eggroll skins. Who buys that stuff?, you once asked yourself, shaking your head. Certainly not you. It makes you kind of queasy just to be near it.

The fact is, though, that tofu’s a great substitute for meat. (It’s a great dairy substitute too.) Tofu can be purchased in varying degrees of firmness, so it’s really versatile—just like you. And if that isn’t enough versatility, it takes on a tougher—more meat-like—texture when it’s cooked or dried, and an entirely new consistency when it’s frozen (tofu pops?) and thawed. Another good quality of tofu (and tempeh and seitan as well, for that matter) is that it has very little taste of its own, but will readily absorb the flavors of sauces and spices.

If tofu sounds too good to be true, that’s probably because it is. It has almost 50% more iron than cow’s liver, and more than twice the calcium in cows’ milk. Asians have been crazy about this food for ages, and maybe it’s time the rest of the world caught up. Tofu isn’t perfect, though. Indeed, it’s quite high in fat by vegan standards and, because it’s a processed food, it doesn’t have a lot of dietary fiber. So you won’t want to make tofu your primary source of calories. It sure is nice to have around, though!

That’s all well and good, you say, but be more specific. What the heck can I do with this stuff? Basically, you can do anything with tofu that you would do with meat. The possibilities are endless. If you look in the recipe section of this website you will find delicious recipes that use tofu.

Meat alternative #2 – Tempeh (because man cannot live on tofu alone)

Tempeh (pronounced “tem-pay”) is practically the national food of Indonesia. It is a cake made from fermented whole soybeans, and sometimes other grains as well—yeah, it comes in flavors. Tempeh is firmer than tofu and lower in fat, and because it’s a whole food you can actually see the grains in it. Just like tofu (and most meat, for that matter) it has a very neutral flavor and it goes well with just about anything. Although tempeh is perishable, it freezes extremely well.

Use tempeh just as you would tofu, as a substitute for meat in almost anything. We like to think of tempeh as the universal “chicken” substitute, maybe because a piece of tempeh has roughly the same color and texture as a chicken’s breast. Try substituting tempeh for chickens in your favorite recipe and see what you think. We have some wonderful recipes in the recipe section of our website that use tempeh.

Meat alternative #3 – Seitan (proof that steaks and roasts can go vegan)

If you’ve ever wondered if all meat “substitutes” have to be made from soybeans (is this some sort of kinky infatuation we vegans have?) the answer is no. Seitan isn’t made from soybeans, and we vegans (along with millions of folks in Asia and other places) love it.

There must be a rule, though, that these things have strange names. Everyone wonders how to pronounce seitan. It isn’t hard. The first syllable is like the word “say”, and the second is “tahn”, as in Tanya Tucker.

However it may be pronounced, seitan is made from wheat gluten that has been cooked in a broth. That may not sound too tasty, but it is. It gives it a whole different texture and flavor than tofu or tempeh. We like to think of seitan as the universal “beef” substitute.

You can make seitan yourself. Here is a slow cooker recipe that we like. You can also buy ready-made seitan. Look for it in your health food grocer’s refrigerator case, right next to the tofu and tempeh.

Sure, you can take a slab of seitan and eat it as a burger, but there are more exciting things to do with it. Check out the recipe section of this website and you will find some amazing recipes that use seitan.

Burgers and Things

If you’re in a pinch for something to take to the family barbecue, need something quick to fill the inside of a sandwich, or want to fool your spouse by serving him or her a healthier breakfast sausage, the world’s food producers won’t let you down. There are about a million varieties of meatless hamburgers, hot dogs, cold cuts and breakfast “meats” out there, and some of them are quite good. You can find these products refrigerated, canned, frozen, dried and otherwise at both your favorite and less-than-favorite health food store and at your smiling neighborhood grocer’s.

Make sure you read all the labels carefully, though. Some of these meat substitutes are loaded with chemicals, and several products that are specially labeled for their “no cholesterol” value are heavily dependent on animal ingredients such as egg whites. You’re looking for the all vegetable varieties, hopefully made out of some pretty healthy stuff.

And you can also make your own vegan burgers. Here is one of our favorite recipes.

Textured vegetable protein

Textured vegetable protein, which usually goes by its monogram “TVP”, is a highly-processed joint venture between the soybean plant and modern science. It isn’t exactly macrobiotic but, depending on how pure one wants to maintain one’s insides, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a place in the conscientious vegan’s diet. TVP is probably best known as an ingredient in imitation “bacon” bits, but it has lots of disguises. TVP granules, for example, can be a dead ringer for ground “beef”. You can dump them into various sauces and soups, and they’re sure to please the “How do you make spaghetti sauce without hamburger?!” crowd.

But Who Needs a “Meat Substitute” Anyway?

A meat substitute? What are you trying to do, imitate meat-eaters? Shouldn’t vegans really be above all that?

These are good questions that are asked all the time. But there are a number of good answers too. We love including meat substitutes in a vegan diet because it is so much fun when you’re dealing with meat-eaters all the time. We love the looks on meat-eaters’ faces when we invite them over for barbecue, or when we offer them a taste of pepper steak without the steak, or “beef” fajitas without the “beef”, or “beef” stroganoff without the “beef” or the stroganoff. It’s fun to enhance dinner with a little gamesmanship, and if meat-eaters can be coaxed to try vegan foods by putting them in the context of something familiar, that’s all the better.