Vegan Eggplant and Tempeh Meatballs

tempeh and eggplant meatballs on a plate

Thank you to Sprouts Farmers Market for sponsoring this post

The word “vegan” placed before a recipe name can either be an invitation or a deterrent: An invitation for the meat abstainers of the world or a deterrent for those who think that anything vegan can’t possibly be good. My hope for these Vegan Eggplant and Tempeh Meatballs is that they appeal to plant-based eaters and make converts of the skeptics.

Meatballs without the Meat

The idea started with a prompt from Sprouts Farmers Market, who asked me to teach a vegan cooking class. Additionally, I was to develop a new dish using a “meat alternative”. I settled on tempeh, a soy bean superfood, as the springboard for my recipe, since I’d heard so much about its nutritional upsides. If you are unfamiliar with tempeh, I wrote an entire post about it, which you can find here).

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs

I set my sights on making vegetarian meatballs, figuring they might be a good gateway dish for tempeh. My inspiration was Eggplant Polpettine, a dish from Bar Bambino, a San Francisco eatery, long since shuttered. They were made with eggplant, pine nuts, currants, and mint and were so good, they rivaled my favorite pork and beef meatballs.

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs

Tempeh to Boost Protein

I figured adding tempeh to the mix would boost the protein, making them nutritionally speaking, a little more akin to real meatballs and more filling. I used Lightlife Tempeh from Sprouts, a brand that has been making tempeh for decades and does so using organic soybeans, which means no GMOs.

After a few attempts, I landed a meatball that looks and tastes much like I remember from Bar Bambino. They hold together well when cooked and develop a lovely brown exterior. They’re more tender than traditional meatballs, caving under the pressure of a fork, and delicious when swirled in a simple tomato sauce. They’re also lighter on the appetite (and the waistline) than traditional meatballs, lower in saturated fat, and boast 12 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and plenty of vegetables.

Tasty Enough for All

I’ve served the meatballs a few times now to both the meat lovers and the meat abstainers of my house. So far, everyone has approved. I hope you do too.

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs

If you like these Vegan Eggplant and Tempeh Meatballs, check out:

Saucy Slow Cooker Meatballs

“Almost Vegan” Cauliflower Alfredo

Vegetarian No-Noodle Lasagna

Lentil and Mushrooms Meatballs by Cookie and Kate

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs
5 from 2 votes

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs with Tempeh in Tomato Sauce

These vegan “meatballs” are so good, you won’t miss the meat. The trick? Combine tender, roasted eggplant with protein-rich tempeh, season just right, and brown in an olive oil-slicked skillet. Serve in a just-so-spicy tomato sauce and all that’s needed is some crusty bread to sop up any extra in the bottom of the bowl. Feel free to make and form the meatballs up to a day ahead, browning them in the pan just before serving. 

Course Dinner
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 35 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 20 minutes
Servings 4 to 5 servings
Calories 386 kcal
Author Katie Morford


For the meatballs

  • 1 1/4- pound eggplant
  • 6 ounces tempeh, such as Lightlife Organic brand
  • ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup shredded Pecorino cheese or vegan Parmesan
  • cup dried currants
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

For the sauce

  • One 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
  • One 15-oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 large yellow onion cut in half and peeled
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon red chile flakes
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

  2. Cut off the stem of the eggplant and cut in half lengthwise. Lay flesh-side-down on a baking sheet. Bake the eggplant until tender enough that a paring knife slips right in and the skin is slightly wrinkled, about 35 minutes. Remove from oven and leave until cool enough to handle.

  3. While the eggplant cools, make the sauce. Empty the cans of tomatoes into a medium saucepan. Use your hands to squash the whole tomatoes into pieces. Add the onion (no need to chop), olive oil, chili flakes, and salt. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat until the sauce simmers. Simmer for 25 minutes. When the sauce is done, remove the onion (discard or save for another use) and stir well. Puree with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor if you prefer a smoother sauce.

  4. Peel off the skin of the cooled eggplant. If some of the flesh of the eggplant adheres to the skin, run the blade of a sharp knife along the skin to remove it. Finely chop the eggplant so it looks a bit like ground meat. Transfer to a large bowl. Crumble the tempeh into the bowl so it’s in tiny pieces. Add the breadcrumbs, Pecorino or vegan Parmesan, currants, pine nuts, mint, and salt. Use your hands to vigorously blend the ingredients together.

  5. Form the mixture into 15 balls that are about 2-inches in diameter.

  6. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (ideally cast iron or non-stick) over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as fit in the pan without overcrowding. Brown on all sides. The meatballs don’t need to cook through as with traditional meatballs. Once browned, transfer to a serving platter.

  7. To serve, put a few spoonfuls of sauce into a shallow bowl. Top with 3 to 4 meatballs and add a little more Pecorino or vegan Parmesan on top. 


06.25.2018 at1:38 PM #

Stacey Mattinson

These meatballs look delicious!

06.25.2018 at6:32 PM #

Erin Palinski-Wade

OMG this looks amazing! I have been looking for more plant based recipes my whole family would enjoy and this looks perfect!

06.26.2018 at7:10 AM #

Whitney E, R.D.

I love eggplants and what a wonderful way to use them! These meatballs look incredibly delicious and that tempeh in the tomato sauce sounds amazing 🙂

06.27.2018 at11:12 AM #

Amy Gorin

Yum! I may have to try these!

06.27.2018 at2:41 PM #

Jodi Robinson

WOW, these look so good. What a neat idea!

06.27.2018 at2:41 PM #

Katie Morford

They are tasty and super nourishing. The eggplant makes them really tender.

09.07.2018 at6:48 PM #


Do you think these would hold shape if kept in a tray with tomato sauce for a couple hours? I’m looking for vegan meatballs to serve at a buffet style wedding, so they’d be in a chafing rack setup, but many of the other eggplant meatball recipes I’ve seen caution against having the ‘meatballs’ in sauce for too long.

09.07.2018 at6:48 PM #

Katie Morford

I would test it out before trying it. They hold together pretty well, but in sauce…I can’t say for sure. They are a great option for vegans.

05.28.2020 at11:29 PM #

Rebecca Smith

I was so dubious cooking this I couldn’t figure out how the flavours were going to work. But it was really really delicious. They have a great texture and the sweetness of the aubergines and currants really compliments the nuttiness of the tempeh. Thank you for posting this xx

05.28.2020 at11:29 PM #

Katie Morford

I’m so glad you like it. I agree, some of the ingredients might seem like an odd match, but it does come together. Thanks for the comment.

07.30.2020 at9:10 PM #


Could I substitute dried cranberries for the currants? And a different nut for the pine nut? I already have those on hand.

07.30.2020 at9:10 PM #

Katie Morford

Yes. I would just chop the nuts and dried cranberries, since you want the pieces small.

08.02.2020 at12:38 PM #


I’d love to try this, but my husband is gluten free, so I can’t use panko bread crumbs. Do you think it works to omit? Or sub something else?

Thanks, Katie!

08.02.2020 at12:38 PM #

Katie Morford

Look for gluten-free panko or other gluten-free bread crumbs.

01.17.2021 at4:09 PM #


What do I do if I don’t have temphe?

01.17.2021 at4:09 PM #

Katie Morford

The recipe was developed with tempeh and I can’t say how it will work without it or with a substitute without having tried it.

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