Do you remember when I talked about my shame/pride of buying my tofu in bulk or that I was actually in the anti-tofu and soy foods camp for a whole lot of years? Well…let me tell you about the first time I bought tempeh, the fermented soy product that I now love and enjoy often.
At some point in mid-college I purchased a package of this wonky, brown and slightly moldy-looking fermented tempeh at my co-op since it was different and not meat. I was still eating meat regularly then but was also very veg/health foods curious. I took the tempeh home, cut it up and used it in something…and I thought it was gross. I didn’t try it again for a good number of years until after Deborah Madison in The New Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone convinced me it was actually quite good for me and not a “fake meat.” And following her cooking suggestions, I tried again and found I enjoyed it a whole lot!
One of the reasons tempeh is good for us is because it is fermented and it helps to inoculate our gut with good microbes. If you haven’t heard me gushing about the microbiome in past posts, well…you probably haven’t also spent an hour or two in my presence because I’m pretty sure the topic makes its way into everyday conversation on the regular. The two big reasons I’m pretty darn fascinated with the topic is that much of our immune system is housed in the gastrointestinal tract, thanks to the plethora of microbes that make their homes there AND about 90 percent of serotonin, one of the feel-good neurotransmitters responsible for regulating mood, relaxation, sleep, and even appetite, is also made and housed in the gut. I’ve struggled with immune dysfunction for a number of years, thanks largely to food sensitivities and compromised gut health, and also with anxiety in various forms for much of my life.
This month, The Recipe Redux challenged us to share a recipe that promotes gut health, and good timing too, because cold and flu season is upon us, as are the dark, damp, and cold days of late fall and winter when moods tend to take a nosedive.
Before I do, I want to share three important things you can do to enhance your internal microbial community, and thus immune health (and likely mood too!)
The first is eating more fiber. The good bacteria that promote health need fiber, which they digest into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like butyrate and propionate. SCFAs are not otherwise available in the diet, and they’re responsible for a whole host of disease preventative effects, one of which is combatting inflammation. The more fiber we consume, the more diverse our microbial life (a good thing), the more short chain fatty acids that are produced, and the more health tends to improve. Fiber in foods comes in the form of fruits and vegetables, whole, unprocessed grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. If you have trouble digesting fiber-rich foods, it likely means you just need a little time to increase them in your diet gradually, as the good bacteria that digest them will grow prolifically if only given their preferred foods, and this can happen in a matter of just a few days!
The second thing to promote gut health, as I hinted above, is to eat more fermented foods like tempeh, miso, sourdough bread, raw sauerkraut and kimchi, and fermented unsweetened yogurt. When we eat fermented foods, we’re introducing the beneficial bacteria instead of feeding the ones already there. Aim for a large variety of fermented foods as this further promotes diversity of bacteria populations and optimal health.
The tempeh that I’m now so fond of is made from organic soybeans that are inoculated with a spore and then fermented. The fermentation process breaks down phytates, which are anti-nutrients and bind minerals and vitamins, so we can digest them. Tempeh is also rich in protein, B vitamins, fiber, phytonutrients, and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, and copper. What’s more, tempeh doesn’t actually have to be cooked so it makes for a quick addition to meals. What Deborah Madison taught me is that steaming it for about 10 minutes before adding into a dish does make it tastier, as it can sometimes be a little bitter without this extra step. I tend to steam when I have the time and just dice and toss into recipes when I’m ready for food on the quick!
Lastly for optimal gut health, reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates, as they promote the proliferation of bad bacteria. Like a kid on too much Halloween candy, more sugar makes the disease-promoting bacteria really happy and they grow in number and increase inflammation and a whole host of less than ideal health outcomes.
Now, for the recipe! Tikka Masala is actually a British dish that came about when a tomato sauce was combined with Indian-spiced vegetables and meat. It is super popular in Britain and Ireland as simply “Chicken Curry,” and this recipe began a number of years ago as a quick dairy-free chicken curry that William and I loved. Over the years, I dropped the chicken, added tempeh, and made several gentle tweaks, and we now have a gut and immune-friendly tempeh tikka masala that can be adapted depending on the season, and comes together quickly without all the marinating and spice rubs of a traditional tikka. Any type of canned coconut milk can be used here, but the whole fat kind will obviously make for a richer, more-rounded dish, and it’s the type I favor these days.
Tempeh Tikka Masala, serves four
16-oz. tempeh, cut into about 48 pieces
1 tsp. coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob of fresh ginger
2-3 cups chopped seasonal vegetables (yellow/orange/red bell peppers, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips, peas, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
3-4 medium garden-ripe tomatoes or 14 oz. canned unsalted whole tomatoes
1 cup coconut milk
juice from one lime
cooked brown rice to serve
- In a small saucepan with steamer basket and 1-2 inches of water in bottom, steam the diced tempeh for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the coconut oil, and then add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Once the onions have begun to caramelize and turn golden, add the remaining vegetables and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes. Then add the spices and mix in.
- Give the mixture a minute or two and then add the tomatoes and stir. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so, and then add the coconut milk, tempeh, and lime juice.
- Stir everything together, let the flavors meld for an additional 10 minutes or so, taste and adjust seasonings as necessary, and enjoy over steamed rice.
BMJ. (2015). High dietary fiber intake linked to health promoting short chain fatty acids: Beneficial effects not limited to vegetarian or vegan diets. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150929070122.htm.
Cresci, G.A. and Bawden, E. (2015). The gut microbiome: What we do and don’t know. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 30(6), 734-746. doi: 10.1177/0994533615609899.
Rich, P. (2017). Gut science is radically changing what we know of the human body. University Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/features/feature-article/gut-research/.