Making angels and devils out of food is an age-old human habit, and plant-based protein has not been spared either. When it comes to soy based protein, the conversation is not just about health, but also taste. Culinary experts discuss the rise of tofu, tempeh, and the likes

My first brush with tofu was at Mainland China nearly a decade ago, and I have to admit, it was a refreshing change from eating paneer when dining with vegetarians. Soft, smooth, well cooked in chilli basil sauce. However, the last few years have shown a more evolved side of soy protein products, and not only have they become popular because of their health value, but also because of the many ways you can enjoy their taste (which is exactly what people like me look for).

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Miso Shiru Tofu at YouMee

Plant based protein i.e. protein from plants is a large food group, and includes mock meat, soy protein, and other such sources. Soy protein is not a new discovery, in fact, it was first made available in the 1930s. However, a consistent effort towards healthy eating has brought soy protein products such as tofu, tempeh, natto, etc.on the forefront, so much so that the soy protein industry currently shares 12 per cent of the Asia-Pacific soy protein market share, and according to reports, India’s soy protein industry is slated to be worth $565 million between 2018 and 2023.

But, enough with the numbers, now a little science. Soy proteins are basically commercially available in three forms: soy flour, concentrates, and isolates. Out of all the sources of soy protein I mentioned above, tofu seems to be the most commonly consumed, while tempeh is picking up. Amol Phute, chef de cuisine at Bastian, Mumbai, says that while tofu and its many variants are made from soy curd, tempeh uses whole soybeans, which renders the primary difference between the two in terms of texture and basic flavour. There is also natto and fermented bean curd, which are used as soy proteins in Japanese and Chinese diets respectively. 

Soy Protien
Tempayy Lettuce Wrap by Hello Tempayy

Chef Siddharth, brand chef of Mamagoto, explains that because tempeh is usually made with nuts, seeds, legumes, or whole grains, it’s significantly richer in calories, protein, and fiber. “One distinct difference between tofu and tempeh is that tempeh provides beneficial probiotics,” he adds.

Chef Sarah Todd recommends tofu for beginners who want to substitute meat with plant-based protein. “Silken tofu is perfect for blending into creamy smoothies, desserts, sauces, or dips. Medium tofu adds a protein hit to soups or casseroles. Firm tofu is ideal in curries, stir-fries, or for barbecue. Extra-firm tofu does not absorb marinades as well, but it is perfect for pan-frying, stir-frying, baking, grilling, or scrambling,” she says, adding that tempeh is perfect as a meat substitute. 

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Braised tofu ramen

Eating tofu, tempeh, and other soy proteins at restaurants is easy, but someone who is making a lifestyle change will have to make it a sustainable, can-make-at-home option. Phute says that while soy protein variants do not form a regular part of the Indian palate and taste distinctly different from what we are used to, “if you are prepared to include it as a regular part of your diet, you could add them to anything from traditional Indian curries, to southeast Asian style stir-fries with kung pao, sichuan, or sriracha sauces.”

Chef Vineet Manocha of YouMee, Delhi, suggests that as tempeh has a dense, meaty texture, it’s good to be used as mock meat. “Soy proteins can be used in various forms in our daily diets viz. milk, curds, chunks, mince, cooked with sauces, curries, grilled, or just seasoned and consumed raw,” he adds.

But what is it about the taste of these soy proteins that appeals to people? After all, it has to be delicious enough to order for the table, or add to your diet, especially if you’re replacing paneer. According to Todd, tempeh is more of an acquired taste, whereas tofu takes on the flavour of other ingredients. Consequently, it is more popular because it has a different flavour profile with each dish.

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Crispy tofu at Bastian, Mumbai

It’s important to note common consumer behaviours at these popular restaurants to understand how the demand for soy protein products has risen. At Todds’ restaurant, Antares, Goa, the majority of vegan or vegetarian customers ask for tofu. Most of her guests like bolder flavours. Bastian’s crispy tofu and Kung Pao tofu is liked by both their vegetarian and non-vegetarian guests, and is one of their most popular dishes. At YouMee, as well, tofu is a popular vegetarian choice, and many vegetarian guests request the addition of these soy proteins in Thai curries too. At Mamagoto, every third guest orders soy protein dishes, and usually, they like it with flavours of fresh herbs, chillies, garlic, soy, and nuts, in their stir fries, soup, and signature bowls.  

Retailers and marketplaces have also been delivering fresh plant protein sources for consumers to try at their place. Living Food Co, an online marketplace for healthy food, offers a selection of authentic handcrafted tofu in five flavours that is rich in protein, made with organic soybean, has zero cholesterol, and no preservatives. Then there’s Blue Tribe Food, a plant-based meat company. Recently, Vegolutions, a conscious food venture, launched Hello Tempayy to introduce various ways of consuming tempeh. Not only do they sell natural tempeh, but they also do interesting marinated versions such as pepper sichuan, tawa masala, etc. to aid those who may not know how to cook with plain tempeh.

Sohil Wazir, one of the founders of Blue Tribe Foods, says that soy is an ingredient of choice in plant-based alternatives due to its high protein content, high fibre, and good amounts of calcium and iron. “Plant-based meat products like the ones that we do are made using a new process called low moisture protein extrusion, where we extract and concentrate the protein from soybean (and other plant-based sources like peas), and then texturise it to feel like meat. This allows the product to feel extremely close to meat, and allows for a protein content, which is as high as what animal meat provides,” he explains.

Talking about common buying patterns and flavours that people like, Wazir says their snack items, like the plant-based chicken nuggets, are well loved, and they’re launching a bunch of other snackables as well. 

Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and CEO of Hello Tempayy, wants to bridge the protein gap for vegetarians in India. “In a country like India, the cookability of the food is important, which means being able to use something comfortably in your kitchen. Tempeh is so versatile that we can use it in curry or tacos or cutlets, all of that, or marinate and pop it in oil, eating it unhealthily,” he says.

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Tofu Bao

In the first 90 days of launching their brand, Siddharth Ramasubramanian realised that consumer taste is fairly diverse, but the motivation is eating better. In fact, he saw sales shoot up, and credits that to the pricing point. Pricing is important, especially if you’re going to use it at home. A packet of plain tempeh cubes is Rs. 130 for 200gms, and the flavoured ones are Rs. 150. Living Food Co’s pricing is also pretty similar for tofu. “We priced the product well, and that’s the reason people are buying more than one. We have observed consumers picking a plain one, and then going any one from the other two marinated versions,” he says.

Siddharth Ramasubramanian also believes that while tofu has been ruling the scene, tempeh will pick up more than it already has. “The ingredients of tempeh are significantly more versatile than tofu. It also works in the space where people love eating paneer but are bored of eating it, and they don’t like tofu. It is breaking the monotony of paneer,” he adds.

And now comes the main question: is soy protein as a food choice becoming more popular, or is it one of those eating clean fads that’ll die out? Chef Phute says that even if it did start off as a fad at some point, the versatility of it will ensure that it’s here to stay. Chef Siddharth agrees, and says that soy protein is becoming more and more popular compared to other protein sources because it is “naturally cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat compared to animal protein, and it’s low on carb, which helps in lowering blood sugar and reducing weight.”

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Plant-based chicken keema with pav by Blue Tribe Food

The Living Food Co says, “The demand for products like soy protein is here to stay as we continue moving towards building the future of food.” 

Biting into that tofu burger, are you? 

Lovneet Batra, an award-winning nutritionist and author, gives a lowdown on the nutritional value of different soy proteins (values per 100gms)

Tofu: 8gms protein, 4gms fat, 2gms carbs

Boiled soybean: 16.6gms protein, 9gms fat, 9.9 gms carbs

Edamame: 11gms protein, 5.2gms fat, 10.2gms carbs 

Natto: 18gms protein, 11gms fat, 14gms carbs

Tempeh: 19gms protein, 11gms fat, 9gms carbs