I remember the first time I decided to try tempeh. I had purchased Heidi Swanson’s cookbook “Super Natural Every Day” (still one of my desert island cookbooks) and was smitten by her photo of black pepper tempeh, which includes a lot of cauliflower and enough garlic to ward off vampires. The recipe was a smashing success — even though we’re not a vegetarian or vegan household, my husband requested that I make this dish every day. While I don’t make the recipe that often, my initial uncertainty about tempeh evaporated.
Interest in plant-based eating was already on the rise before the pandemic, but demand for meat alternatives has increased, whether for health reasons or as a reaction to last year’s meat shortages. If you don’t want to go the “faux meat” route, and you get tired of beans (or have trouble digesting them), traditional soy foods such as tofu or tempeh may be a more appealing way to add plant-based protein to your meals.
So what is tempeh, exactly? It’s a traditional Indonesian soy product made from fermented soybeans. It has a firm texture and an earthy flavor, which becomes more pronounced as it ages. Kind of like cheese, in that respect. While both tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans, unlike tofu, tempeh is a whole soybean product. That gives it different nutritional characteristics and textural qualities. For example, it contains more protein, fiber and nutrients than tofu.
Tempeh originated on the Indonesian island of Java — unlike most soy foods, which mostly originated in China, Japan or Korea. The exact origins of tempeh are less clear than that of other soy foods, but it’s thought that tempeh has been around for at least several hundred years, though the earliest known reference to it was in 1875. Tempeh may have been accidentally produced as the byproduct of tofu production, when discarded soybeans interacted with fungal spores. The first commercial production of tempeh in the United States, by Indonesian immigrants, began in 1961.
Accidental origins aside, tempeh is made through a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans — sometimes with whole grains — into a cake form. If you want to get really detailed, tempeh starter cultures typically include multiple Rhizopus species of fungus, but R. oligosporus is predominant. R. oligosporus is the preferred starter for a number of reasons, including that it grows effectively in the warm temperatures typically found in Indonesia and can inhibit and outcompete other molds and pathogenic bacteria.
If right now you’re thinking, “Gross, I’m never eating tempeh!” consider that controlled fermentation means cultivating certain microbes — for their direct health benefits, or for how they turn ingredients into something more nutritious, healthful or delicious — while preventing the growth of microbes we don’t want. If you enjoy other fermented foods such as aged cheese, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, artisan sourdough, fresh sauerkraut (not the shelf-stable stuff), wine or beer, don’t fret about giving tempeh a try.
After fermentation, the mycelia — the vegetative, threadlike portions of a fungus — of R. oligosporus multiply, ultimately growing dense enough to compress the soybeans into tempeh’s characteristic firm, compact “cake” form. Good quality tempeh will have a white coating from the mycelia, as well as dark spots formed by fungal spores. The more spores produced, the stronger the aroma and flavor. Once the soybeans are bound together, the fungus releases protein-digesting enzymes, which contribute to a pleasing texture, flavor and aroma — sometimes compared to that of a chewy mushroom.
Because its protein content is similar to that of meat, tempeh is often used as a meat substitute. In Indonesia, tempeh is often cut into thin strips and fried, or cubed and incorporated into coconut milk curries, or barbecued in sweet sauces. Marinating tempeh in a sweet-salty-sour sauce before cooking is also common. Tempeh can be sliced, cubed or crumbled, and incorporated into stir-fries, taco salads, chilis or pasta sauces. You can skewer cubes of tempeh with veggies and grill them as kebabs, or slice a tempeh cake into ¼-inch slices, pan-fry and use in sandwiches.
I’ve found that some people prefer tempeh over tofu, while others feel the opposite. It often comes down to texture preferences. So if you’ve tried tofu and wanted to like it, but didn’t, then definitely give tempeh a try. Tempeh isn’t as ubiquitous in local stores as tofu is, but I’ve found it locally at PCC Community Markets, Whole Foods, Central Co-op, Metropolitan Market and Safeway.
Marinated baked tempeh
Yield: Serves 4
This is an easy, delicious, basic recipe. Enjoy on salads or grain bowls, as part of a snack plate, or added to a vegetable stir-fry.
- One 8-ounce package plain tempeh, cubed
- 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar (can substitute cider or white wine vinegar)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sriracha
- ½ teaspoon honey
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- Place the tempeh cubes in a shallow dish. In a small bowl, combine the tamari, vinegar, sesame oil, sriracha, honey and minced garlic; whisk to combine. Pour mixture over the tempeh. Marinate at room temperature, turning occasionally, for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (Can also be marinated in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
- Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Arrange the tempeh cubes on the baking sheet, reserving the excess marinade.
- Bake for 10 minutes, then flip the cubes and brush with some of the reserved marinade. Bake about 10 more minutes or until the cubes are golden and crisp around the edges.