Lemon Chinese with Tempeh

Whenever I ordered “Lemon Tofu” in a Chinese restaurant, it was never quite as lemony as I had hoped for. So one day I decided to take matters into my own hands and make my own.

So here it is. A tangy Lemon Sauce with ginger and five spice, tossed through a melange of colourful vegetables and paired with marinated tempeh.

If you happen to be wondering what tempeh is, it’s a block of fermented soy beans from Indonesian origin, and contains a good deal of protein and other wonderful minerals. It has a distinctive, bold taste that in days-gone-by I tried to cut with all kinds of flavours. (There is even a scribble jotted down in my old note-book from 1995 that says “kill tempeh with frozen concentrated orange juice and soy sauce.” Might have to try that one of these days.) Having said that, I now rather like the flavour of tempeh as it is, but better still when it’s marinated. For sure, put it through the Lemon Sauce and vegetables last-minute as it softens quickly. And if you can’t find tempeh for this time, tofu would be a good substitute.

This recipe is simpler than it looks, and both the Lemon Sauce and tempeh can be made ready ahead of time. The vegetables are inter-changeable, so feel free to mix and match a variety of things, according to your taste. Just tally a total count of around one kilo (2 pounds) of vegetables for four large or six smaller portions, choose which of the veggies would be better stir-fried or blanched, and it should work out just fine!

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Lemon Chinese

300 g (3 cups) fresh tempeh
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil


12 cloud/tree ears (optional)
1 courgette (zucchini)
1 red bell pepper
2 medium cloves garlic
250 g (1 small head)  broccoli
125 g (1½ cups) snow peas
150 g (½ cup) water chestnuts
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Oil for frying

Lemon Sauce

250 ml water 
20 g (2 tablespoons) palm sugar or brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
20 g (2 tablespoons) fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon five spice powder
3 tablespoons corn starch
3 tablespoons cold water
4 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 large lemon)
1 tablespoon lemon zest or shreds (about 1 large lemon)
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil

    • Collect and measure all the listed ingredients before starting to cook. Group them to keep them clear.

    • Cut the tempeh into thin slices, then cut each slice into wide strips. Mix one tablespoon of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and sesame oil and toss through the tempeh to marinate.
    • Soak the cloud ears in eight times their volume of water until they swell up, about 20 minutes.
    • Cut the courgette into halves, then cut each half into diagonal slices.
    • Deseed and cut the bell pepper into triangular wedges.
    • Peel and press or mince the garlic.
    • Cut the broccoli into bite-sized florets and peel the broccoli stem and cut into short batons.
    • Cut the snow peas into diagonal halves.
    • Drain the water chestnuts, reserving the canned liquid for the sauce, and cut into halves lengthwise, so they look like pennies.
    • Peel with a teaspoon and grate, or mince, the ginger.

Vegetables; Stir-Fried, & Tempeh
  • In a large non-stick frying pan over a medium-high flame, heat up a little oil and stir-fry the courgette until the white flesh begins to darken. Sprinkle with one teaspoon of soy sauce, and stir-fry for a few seconds more. Set aside.
  • Next, add the bell pepper and stir-fry until it caramelizes. Stir in the garlic and stir-fry until the garlic is aromatic. Set aside with the courgette.
  • Lastly, add a little more oil and gently stir-fry the tempeh, being careful not to break it, over a medium-low flame until dark in colour and crisp. This may take some time, so continue with the other steps while it is cooking, stirring now and then for even colour. Turn off when done.

  • Tip: this method works well if making lots of tempeh for a large group; Preheat the oven to 190 °C (375 °F). Toss the marinated tempeh with a tablespoon of oil and scatter on an oiled baking sheet. Bake for 20–30 minutes, until golden and crisp. 

Vegetables; Blanched
      • Bring a pot of salted water to a rapid boil over a high flame.
      • Drop in the broccoli florets and stems, return to a boil, scoop out with a slotted spoon and put them in a colander to drip-dry.
      • In the same water, drop in the snow peas for a few seconds only, scoop out and put them with the broccoli.
      • Lastly, drop in the cloud ears and water chestnuts and heat for thirty seconds – there is no need to cook them. Scoop out and put with the other vegetables.

Lemon Sauce
      • In a saucepan, put in the water, soy sauce, palm sugar, fresh ginger, five spice, and white pepper. Bring to a light boil. In a small bowl, beat the corn starch with 3 tablespoons of cold water and whisk into the hot sauce until it thickens – it should become quite thick. Turn off the flame.
      • Stir in the roasted sesame oil,  lemon zest and lemon juice.
      • Season to taste with salt. Cover.

    • When everything is ready, combine the vegetables with the sauce and scatter with the tempeh.
    • Serve immediately alongside steamed rice.

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