The Tao Restaurant has a revered place in the history of Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to college. It was very much a product of the 1970s: it was owned and run by a yoga ashram, as was the adjacent bakery, Rudi’s (named for the ashram’s founding swami, Rudrananda). It was a little pricey for my student budget but I managed to go a few times. I remember it as an elegantly homey place with food that was quite delicious. When I lived in Bloomington in the mid ‘80s The Tao was in its final years. The ashram had already moved to Boston (later they would relocate again to Portland, and soon Rudi’s and The Tao closed up shop. The building now houses a collegiate sports bar called, ironically, Yogi’s.

One of the Tao’s chefs, Sally Pasley, wrote a cookbook called The Tao of Cooking. It came out in 1982, what one might refer to as the “late hippie” era. The recipes, all vegetarian, draw both from the earthy and natural ethos of the ‘70s and from the growing culinary sophistication of the ‘80s. They span the globe: there are recipes for samosas, for chiles rellenos and for Turkish boreks, for gnocchi and for Japanese egg rolls. There is also lentil soup and tofu burgers and something called Hobbit Pie. And there is Big Veg, the soy burger that was “the mainstay of the Tao menu in its early years.”

I was happy to find a Soy Burger recipe in the Tao, not only because it affirmed my memories of the restaurant’s hippie culture but, more practically, because the Paisley Farm Winter CSA had recently left me with a pound and a half of dried soybeans. I followed the Big Veg recipe almost exactly. It made a batch of burgers that were hearty, very healthy-tasting, and… a little bland. They were more earthy ’70s  than sophisticated ‘80s;  their flavor was, to quote one Bloomington blogger, more well-meaning than delicious.

But nonetheless it’s a very good recipe: it’s an excellent blank canvas onto which any number of flavors can be drawn. Unlike, say, black beans, soybeans don’t come with much flavor of their own, and so they happily take on whatever flavor you give them. Think of tofu to understand what I mean. Big Veg could be curried, or given an Asian treatment of ginger and sesame oil. It could be spiced up with smoky canned Adobo sauce or with a spicy Thai mixture of jalapeno, cilantro, lime, coconut milk and lemon grass. Or to add a bit of irony with your flavorings, mix in a small amount of pork that’s been roasted, shredded and tossed in barbecue sauce. Use pork raised on a small local farm: you’ll bring Big Veg in an idealistic full circle from its hippie-era origins to our own locavore era – not such a great distance, perhaps.

With thanks to Sally Pasley Vargas, to The Tao of Cooking and to The Tao restaurant, I’ve typed up the recipe for Big Veg below, accompanied by a few suggested variations. I haven’t tried these variations yet: if you do – or if you dream up one of your own — I’d love to read about it in the comments section.

Big Veg
From The Tao of Cooking, Sally Pasley, Ten Speed Press, 1982
The Big Veg was the mainstay of the Tao restaurant in its early years. All manner of leftovers can be incorporated into the mix. I like mine on toast with sliced tomato, Bermuda onion, and ketchup.

1½ cups soy beans
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
¾ cup grated carrots
¼ cup ketchup
1 egg
1 tsp. salt
pinch cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
½ tsp. thyme
1 cup bread crumbs
flour for breading
bread crumbs for breading
beaten egg
oil for frying

1. Cover soy beans with water and soak overnight. Cook until tender, about 1½ hours. Drain and mash to a paste with a food mill or food processor.

2. Mix beans with remaining ingredients and taste for seasoning. Form into eight patties

3. Dredge patties lightly in flour, coat with beaten egg and roll in breadcrumbs. Heat about ¼-inch of oil in a heavy skillet or frying pan and fry until crisp and brown on both sides.

Curry Soy Burger:
Smash the clove of garlic from the recipe and 1 additional garlic clove with the edge of a knife. Place them into a mortar or small food processor with the teaspoon of salt. Add 2 tablespoons of curry powder (or more, to taste) and mix into a paste, adding a few drops of water if needed.

Heat a tablespoon of butter in a large skillet. Add the minced onion and curry paste. Cook, stirring, over medium until the onion is translucent and evenly mixed with the spices, 5 to 7 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, and add to remaining ingredients. Omit the thyme; substitute 2 tablespoons tomato paste for the ketchup and 1 tablespoon lemon juice for the Worcestershire sauce.

Asian Soy Burger:
To the mixture above add: 2 tablespoons minced ginger, 2 tablespoons sesame or aji oil and an additional tablespoon of soy sauce (do not use Worchestershire sauce). Omit the salt. Omit the ketchup and add 1 tsp sugar. Use ½ cup chopped scallions in place of ½ of the onion and 1 tablespoon chopped chives in place of the thyme. Dredge in panko in place of the breadcrumbs.

Soyburguesa Mexicana:
Heat a teaspoon of corn oil in a skillet and add ¼ cup fresh or frozen corn kernels. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned approximately 10 minutes. Allow to cool.

To the bean mixture add: the roasted corn kernels; 1 to 2 tablespoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotles; 1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro. Omit the ketchup and add 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon lime juice. Omit the Worcestershire / soy sauce. Omit the thyme and replace it with 2 tsp Mexican oregano. Dredge in cornmeal in place of the breadcrumbs.