No More Street Meat

Right now, right at this very moment, a ponderous line is snaking its way down the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley, roiling with ravenous foodies clamoring for a taste of what some have called the best Halal food in the entire country. It doesn’t matter what time you’re reading these words; I guarantee that line still persists, waxing and waning well into the darkest hours of the night, thinning but remaining ever-present even once the doors shut for a brief reset in the morning. The hype behind New York’s famous Halal Guys is no joke. Even though their first outpost in the bay area is fully accessible in downtown San Francisco, the demand for these middle eastern platters of street meat has reached fever pitch.

Rarely have I read reviews so overstuffed with outrageous hyperbole; you’d think these writers were describing lucid dreams after one too many drinks, or perhaps something a bit stronger. From the glowing golden rice, infused with a mysterious savory flavor that no one can quite agree on, to the legendary “white sauce” described as a particular excretion from an angelic source, it’s hard to believe that any real life experience could ever live up to such bold advertising.

Though halal truly refers to the method of slaughter, deemed acceptable by Muslims to eat in good faith, the concept has come to simply indicate a sort of middle eastern cart cuisine, strong on spices, quick and easy to eat on a brief lunch break, and always there for you after a late-night binge. Such culture really only exists in NYC, but cravings know no boundaries, and so that same style of food has begun to take root on the opposite coast.

Allow me to tempt you to step out of line for a meatless rendition that needs no breathless amplification to sell itself. Leave the social media madness behind and focus on the flavor here. Tempeh soaks in all the rich, nuanced spices of a deceptively simple marinade to pack all the protein punch you could ever ask for. Load it up in a generous mound over fluffy, fragrant yellow rice, lavish it with white sauce of more reputable origin, and finish the plate with a few fresh garnishes for the complete experience.

Sure, it’s no 10-minute meal, but every single second is worth the wait for this unrivaled flavor explosion. Each piece is quite winsome in its own right, but the harmony that happens when the whole platter is united is difficult to describe in words. It’s something that must be experienced to be fully understood, just like the original inspiration.

Besides, you’ll still easily work your way through the whole process in half the time it would take to arrive at the front of that interminable line.

Halal Cart Tempeh Platter

Tempeh Shawarma:

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Fresh Oregano
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Tablespoons Olive oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 (8-Ounce) Packages Tempeh, Cubed
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Yellow Onion

Yellow Rice:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Jasmine or Basmati Rice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

White Sauce:

1 (5.3-Ounce) Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

To Serve

Shredded Romaine Lettuce or Cabbage
Tomatoes, Sliced or Cut into Wedges
Pita Bread, Lightly Toasted and Cut into Wedges

The longer you can let the tempeh marinate, the better, so begin preparing this meal at least 2 hours in advance, if not a full day. Start by whisking together the lemon juice, soy sauce, spices and herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and add in the cubed tempeh and onions, tossing thoroughly to coat. This is also fantastic to prepare in a zip-top plastic bag to ensure complete coverage and an airtight seal. Place the mixture in your fridge and let rest for an hour at minimum, and 24 hours at best, before proceeding.

When you’re ready to cook the meal, get the rice started so that it’s hot and ready when you are. Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat, swirling it to coat the bottom. Sprinkle in the turmeric and coriander, sauteing very briefly just to toast the spices and allow their full flavors to develop. Deglaze the pan with the vegetable stock, stirring well to ensure that there are no spices sticking at the bottom, and add in the rice, salt, and the pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Meanwhile, return your attention to the marinated tempeh. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and bring it up to temperature before dumping in the entire contents of the zip-top bag. Don’t be alarmed if it immediately begins to sizzle and smoke; that’s what you want to see! Spread out the cubed tempeh so that it’s arranged an an even layer, with full contact on the skillet. Let cook, undisturbed, for at least 5 minutes until browned on the first side. Flip and continue to cook, repeating until all sides are golden and crispy.

For the white sauce, simply whisk together all of the ingredients until smooth.

Finally, you’re ready to serve! Layer a sturdy base of fluffy golden rice on each plate, followed by a mound of hot tempeh. Drizzle generously with white sauce and garnish with any or all of the suggested accompaniments. Offer a dish of harissa paste or any other hot sauce on the side. Devour immediately!

Makes 4 – 5 Servings

Printable Recipe


An Edible Mosaic

Cookbooks of every subject imaginable fill my constantly growing collection, an all-inclusive library of texts big and small. Predictably, the vast majority bear not even a passing mention to meat or dairy products, but it may come as a surprise that I don’t buy exclusively vegan cookbooks. In fact, part of the fun is finding something new that hasn’t yet been made in a vegan format, or provides new insight on why particular techniques evolved throughout the years. Particularly true of “authentic” recipes from other cultures, it really is much more effective (and delicious) to go straight to the source.

In the case of An Edible Mosaic, the source turns out to be close to my heart, if not in physical distance. Faith Gorsky, food blogger extraordinaire, talented photographer, and now accomplished cookbook author has been churning out mouth-watering dishes for years, sharing them with infectious enthusiasm. Showcasing all of her skills in one gorgeous hardcover text, it doesn’t take a cook or a foodie to appreciate the luscious photos within. Lavished with full-color images throughout, it would be a worthwhile investment if only as a coffee table book.

Happily, An Edible Mosaic is worth far more than that, as my first pick of Garlicky Potato Dip (Mutabbal Batata) (page 67) made readily apparent. Easily veganized by swapping in vegan yogurt, the whole recipe came together in a snap. Redolent of robust garlic essence, the thick potatoes make for a very rich, intense eating experience. Continuing to thicken as it cooled, and even more so after a rest in the fridge, it did seem like passing off mashed potatoes as a dip. A topping of spicy olive oil is a must for added contrast. Fresh herbs do wonders to brighten up the whole combination, although I did of course skip the cilantro in favor of parsley. While excelling in flavor, a bit more yogurt might improve the texture, helping to reinforce its place on the hors d’oeuvres tray rather than the dinner table.

Shawarma is one dish that is still hard to find without meat, and even harder to find done right. With Faith’s spicing guidelines in hand, the Spiced Shawarma Chicken Wraps (Shawarma Dajaj) (page 92) were the perfect opportunity to attempt making my own vegan version. Favoring rehydrated soy curls rather than poultry, the remaining procedure was just as simple as promised, yielding great rewards for such little effort. My only other alterations were the standard yogurt switch and baking for only 30 minutes, since the curls didn’t need to be “cooked through” the same way as meat would. Quite frankly, this was awesome. Killer spices, so much better than anything I had previously muddled together, make this dish a success no matter what you cook in them. Wraps aside, I would gladly devour those soy curls in salads, over rice, or by themselves. That marinade will go on to cover countless proteins to come, no doubt about it.

The Creamy Garlic Sauce (Toumieh) (page 24) served on the side, however, wasn’t entirely a resounding success. Granted, the Garlic Mayonnaise was recommended for serving alongside the wraps; veganizing the sauce was a more direct conversion, thus making it a better representative of the original recipe. Made for garlic lovers only, this will give you dragon’s breath of the best sort! Intense, ridiculously creamy and buttery, it is dangerously addictive. The trouble was in viscosity. Despite adding the optional [vegan] mayonnaise for thickness, the mixture just refused to bulk up, and furthermore insisted on separating after even a minute of inactivity. That sure didn’t stop me from relishing it as a salad dressing at many later meals, of course.

Lentil and Bulgur Pilaf with Caramelized Onions (Mujaddara Burghul) (page 82) is the world’s most perfect meal, by my uninformed estimation. Think about it- How many other dishes can boast such well-balanced nutrition, between the hearty whole grains and tender, protein-packed lentils? Top it all off with aromatic spices and irresistible caramelized onions, and you’ve got a dinner that’s both well rounded and unconditionally delicious. Everyone loves this classic, which makes its accidentally vegan composition that much more delightful. I’ve eaten many a bowl of mujaddara in my day, and this one definitely ranks up in the top three. Flavored mostly with warm, toasty cumin and a gentle accent of cinnamon, it works beautifully for lunch or dinner, hot or cold. This dish knows no boundaries.

Spices are of course so critical to Middle Eastern cooking, and Faith manages to make all of the combinations both approachable and accessible. My one main criticism, however, is the way that the main spice mixtures are laid out in the beginning of the book. I feel as though I’m constantly running around in circles trying to complete one mixture, as many redirect to other spice recipes, not once, not twice, but in a few cases up to four times. Personally, I wish they were all just written out in entirety, even if it would seem redundant.

All told, An Edible Mosaic is a cookbook that everyone can enjoy. Meaty or milky recipes can be modified with just a little creativity, so vegans need not avert their eyes. It’s a small challenge with a huge payoff, as you will surely be able to taste for yourself.

When Food Bites Back

Eggplant, my dear, you are one cruel mistress. I’ve professed my love to you time and again, but nothing will tame your harsh bite; the most delicate preparations or careful peeling does little to lessen the fire. I’ve come to realize that it’s honestly not you, eggplant darling, but me. The burning sensation that inflames my whole mouth, throat, and stomach, comparable to an intense and wide-spread heartburn, is the sign of an intolerance.

Given the prevalence of food allergies, and allergies in general, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I can eat my gluten with gusto, and relish my peanut butter-smeared apple slices, unlike many Americans these days. Complaining about something so mild as a slight discomfort when eating eggplant feels incredibly petty in comparison. It’s nothing life-threatening, does no permanent damage, but only removes a beloved vegetable from my diet. Admitting that though still stings a bit, too. Sometimes the pain will be worth it, and I’ll dive into that plate of spicy, garlicky, and meltingly tender Chinese eggplant anyway, but now that I’ve given it a name and told the internet about it, I may not be able to do so as easily anymore.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, once the brief mourning period passed I set to work devising ways to work around that purple nightshade. Closely linked in my mind, for their mild flesh and similar squash lineage, zucchini has now started vying for the title of “most popular vegetable” in my fridge these days.

Dishes provided by Steelite

Baba ganoush was my first introduction to eggplant, before I even knew what was in the mellow, smoky dip, and is still a top pick. Given that the squash would be mostly ground up, it seemed like a good test to see how my new zucchini friends would fare, replacing that original love. Anticipating from the get-go that nothing would ever replace those eggplant, or even come close, I was startled at my first taste. The simple addition of smoked salt helped to pick up the deeper, woodsier notes that the delicate flesh couldn’t replicate alone, and it made all the difference. With a flavor far closer that I could have hoped to come to the original inspiration, this mild but wonderfully savory, lightly roasted taste sensation gives me hope for life without eggplants.

I’ll admit to secretly holding out hope that the intolerance is just a passing phase, but until there’s actual evidence of that, I think I’ll get along just fine with my glorious, green zucchinis instead.

Zuke-anoush (Zucchini Baba Ganoush)

1 1/2 Pounds Zucchini (About 2 Large or 3 Medium)
6 – 8 Garlic Cloves, Separated From the Head but Not Peeled
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil, Plus Additional to Garnish
Pinch [Table] Salt and Black Pepper
3 Tablespoons Sesame Tahini
2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Applewood or Hickory Smoked Salt

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Slice the zucchini into 1/4-inch thick rounds, and toss them in the oil, salt and pepper until evenly coated. Lay them out in one even layer, with no pieces overlapping, on your prepared baking sheet. Place the whole cloves of garlic grouped in the center of the sheet so that they don’t burn. Roast for 30 minutes, until the zucchini are nicely browned. Let cool.

Once the vegetables have come to room temperature, peel the garlic cloves, and toss them into your food processor along with the roasted zucchini. Add in the tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and smoked salt. Pulse to combine, until you create a rough and chunky sort of paste. You don’t want it to be smooth, so err on the side of less processed if you’re not certain. It should only take about 5 – 10 one-second pulses, depending on your machine.

Transfer the finished dip into an air-tight container, and ideally let it cure in the fridge for at least 8 hours or overnight before serving. It’s delicious eaten immediately, but the flavors do meld and improve with a bit of time. Serve with an additional drizzle of olive oil over the top, if desired.

Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Cups

Printable Recipe