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April 7, 2022
The Nutty, Chewy, Surprisingly Colorful World of Tempeh
Article_Tempeh

Once you look beyond the ingredient’s raw functionality, there are delicious fried snacks and wildly creative fermentation projects to be found.

When New York summers approach the sweaty heat of the Indonesian tropics, Fefe Anggono likes to make tempeh—but only if she’s in a good mood. “It’s a fermented food,” she says, “so if you don’t feel happy, the tempeh won’t become tempeh.” Growing up in the city of Surabaya, Indonesia, she ate it weekly, she explains, most often simply sliced and fried, to be served with rice, vegetables, and sambal. “In America, tempeh is considered a specialty health food that’s expensive or hard to find, but in Indonesia, it’s an affordable food enjoyed by everyone—rich and poor, young and old.”

These days, Anggono prepares royally delicious tempeh dishes for her catering company, Taste of Surabaya, which shows up at the New York Indonesian Food Bazaar, a frenetic monthly gathering of Indonesian cooks in Queens who sell dozens of homemade specialties to a diverse, though largely Indonesian, crowd. I love the crisp bite and spicy-sweet verve of Anggono’s oseng tempe: a stir-fry of browned tempeh batons and chiles cooked with kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce), oyster sauce, and tamarind. She also makes a mean kering tempe, and in a just world, that jumble of crisp fried tempeh cubes, tiny dried anchovies, and peanuts all glazed in palm sugar would be offered as a bar snack across the country.

Having had the good fortune to grow up near one of the largest Indonesian communities in the United States, I have long been fascinated by tempeh. Often called a “plant-based” protein for its soybean content, tempeh’s sliceable-cake texture and nutritional benefits are the consequence of fungal digestion. The odd cheese rind aside, it is the only fungal food where we eat its mycelium—the mesh of rootlike filaments that comprise the main body of the organism underground—instead of a mushroom that rises from the earth for the purposes of reproduction.

In a just world, that jumble of crisp fried tempeh cubes, tiny dried anchovies, and peanuts all glazed in palm sugar would be offered as a bar snack across the country.

With a protein density comparable to beef or chicken, tempeh is packed with vitamins, low in carbs, and free of cholesterol. It is this “superfood” status that has dominated the American commercial and cultural narrative about tempeh since its introduction to the country in the 1960s. The reasons are complex and dispiriting; they also offer hints as to why, in a time of fervent interest in fermented foods, mushrooms, and meat-free eating, tempeh has remained on the fringes of so many public conversations. But once you open your mind to what tempeh is rather than what it can replace, you can begin to appreciate this nutty-tasting Indonesian specialty on its own terms. That’s where the joy of tempeh begins.

While tofu appears in cuisines across East and Southeast Asia, tempeh is decidedly Indonesian. Written records date back to the early 19th century, noting its likely origin on the island of Java, though some scholars think the cultured soybean cake may be hundreds or even thousands of years older. There are many forms of tempeh in the Indonesian archipelago, some not even made with soybeans. Whole grain, cassava fiber, and pressed coconut tempeh all make regional appearances. In parts of Java, aged, unpasteurized tempeh is prized for its pungent, funky flavor, reminiscent of a formidable washed-rind cheese.

“Tempeh is nutty and toasty in flavor naturally,” says Lara Lee, an Indonesian-Australian chef and the author of the cookbook Coconut & Sambal. “The savory meatiness and texture are amplified when the tempeh is deep-fried.” You don’t have to fry tempeh to enjoy it (you can marinate and grill it, submerge it in a curry sauce, or even steam it in banana leaf parcels over an open flame), but that’s certainly my favorite method.

“Nearly all Indonesians deep-fry their tempeh—deep-frying is second nature to Indonesians,” Lee explains. “If an Indonesian sees someone trying to panfry their tempeh in an attempt to be healthy, they will think the world has gone mad!” Lee’s introduction to tempeh occurred on her family’s first trip to Indonesia from their home in Sydney. “It was a tempe goreng (fried tempeh) dish of some variety . . . crispy, golden, and very moreish. My love for it was immediate. It was nutty, toasty, and textured, and it had absorbed all the flavors of garlic and ground coriander it had been marinated in.”

Once you open your mind to what tempeh is rather than what it can replace, you can begin to appreciate this nutty-tasting Indonesian specialty on its own terms.

Tempeh is nearly impossible to overcook, and the longer you fry it, the more it will develop intense savory flavors and an immaculate crisp bite. You can eat this tempeh as is or add it to stir-fries, broths, or stews, where it will soften but retain its chewiness.

Unlike tofu, which arrived by vectors including foreign trade, immigration, and cultural imports, tempeh’s introduction to the United States was mostly through academic channels. Permanent settlement for Indonesian immigrants wasn’t even permitted by law until 1965. By 2000, the United States was home to 63,000 Indonesian Americans—a fraction of the 273 million people living in the Republic of Indonesia. That figure has since doubled, but the American diasporic community remains relatively small, and even in cities with substantial Indonesian American populations, Indonesian restaurants are few and far between. As a result of these numbers, much of the talk—and commerce—about tempeh in the United States has occurred without Indonesian involvement.

The academic interest in tempeh began during Dutch colonization in 1816. European scientists living in Indonesia were fascinated with the alchemy of tempeh’s fermentation; some went so far as to call it a miracle protein that could eradicate world hunger. For the next 150 years, nearly all of the scientific studies about tempeh were conducted by Europeans, with little consideration for tempeh’s role in Indonesian cooking beyond being a cheap, meatless protein.

For a little while, that trend looked like it might change. In a 2004 paper on the history of tempeh, William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, the cofounders of the Soyinfo Center, note that in the early 1960s, when tempeh first got its toes wet on American shores, American research teams were anchored by Indonesian members. They suspect it was Yap Bwee Hwa, a graduate student at Cornell University, who made the first tempeh in the United States, with spores she preserved and brought over from Indonesia. However, as academic interest picked up in the 1970s, a growing number of researchers pursued tempeh with the same priorities as European colonial research interests a century earlier: nutrition and consistent replication over flavor and cultural significance.

It was in the ’70s that academic research on tempeh collided with the natural food and counterculture movements roiling through the United States. Tempeh-making spread through conferences, agricultural communes, and natural food businesses. What few Indonesian-owned tempeh companies did exist eventually dried up. None grew into large-scale production for regional or national sale. “In the midst of the world’s largest meat producing country,” Shurtleff and Aoyagi continue, “many considered tempeh to be the finest ‘meatless meat’ available.”

The moral of this story is not that non-Indonesians making tempeh is bad. It’s not even that the Americanized approach to eating tempeh is bad. It’s about who sets cultural agendas in one century and who profits from them in the next.

Fortunately, many cities now have local producers of Indonesian heritage making fresh, unpasteurized tempeh. A few, like BOStempeh in Boston, even ship their product nationwide. This fresh tempeh should be cooked within a few days or frozen for later use. Compared to pasteurized tempeh sold in stores, the soybeans in “raw” tempeh taste beanier, the fungus more mushroomy, and the texture more dynamic. Some people are turned off by the bitter taste that shows up in some pasteurized tempeh; that bitterness is absent in the fresh version. In the realm of pasteurized tempeh, my favorite brand is Wiwas, a Houston-based company that launched in 2019. Their product is also sold online, and it has a dense, honest soybean nuttiness that I’ve found lacking in many national supermarket brands like Lightlife and Tofurky.

Tempeh

Of course, for the freshest tempeh, it’s worth making your own. Incubating tempeh isn’t difficult, so long as you clean your tools well and are willing to sacrifice a batch or two while you figure out the particulars of your fermentation microclimate. The Indonesian Tempe Movement, a nonprofit organization that promotes tempeh culture worldwide, has good instructions for you. After an overnight soak, rub the dried soybeans beans between your palms or in a dish towel to separate the skins, so the starter spores can penetrate the beans. Then boil the beans until they’re par-cooked but still have a bite far from “done,” which will take between 30 and 60 minutes. Drain the skinned, partially cooked beans and spread them into a single layer, then dry them with a fan or blow-dryer until little to no surface moisture remains. Once they’re dry, toss them in a clean bowl with a tablespoon of neutral-tasting vinegar and a pinch of tempeh spores, which are available at most Indonesian markets as well as online.

Pack these beans into sealable bags with some holes punched through for airflow, and let the fungus do its thing for 24 to 60 hours, until the beans are encased in a solid mass of white mycelium with a couple black spots here and there. Unless you live in the tropics, you’ll have to set up an incubation chamber for this step. Tempeh spores need temperatures around 90°F to grow, with some humidity and airflow. Some people prop open an oven door and leave the light on; others incorporate food dehydrators and other small appliances into their setups.

The internet has opened avenues for deep tempeh discussion well beyond Big Tempeh’s reach. I’m especially charmed by the Tempeh Makers Facebook group, where everyone’s home-cultured cake is a cause for celebration. Launched by a Portland, Oregon, tempeh shop in 2017, the group’s 4,400 members now hail from all over the world. They share advice with beginning fermenters, trade spore recommendations, and post about their own creations with laboratory shorthand.

You’ll find a cornucopia of visually arresting tempeh on Instagram as well. I’m transfixed by the purple and pink shades of beet and buckwheat tempeh from an Indonesian tempeh maker in Germany who incorporates local foods into their creations. Squirrel and Crow, the creator of that Facebook group, has experimented with a brined and smoked split pea tempeh akin to pastrami. And in the Caribbean, Putri Gremmer makes the most beautiful tempeh I’ve ever seen: snowy white wheels of chickpea tempeh pressed with flower petals and studded with black rice; a brilliant checkerboard of orange and purple sweet potato tempeh; and mosaics of millet, sunflower seed, and green lentil styles.

Gremmer grew up on the Indonesian island of Bintan in a family that only had meat once or twice a year. “I was born eating tempeh,” she says. When she and her husband moved to Grenada for his job, she searched for tempeh everywhere, only to find none on the island. So she started making her own to sell locally. “In the beginning, people I talked to about tempeh weren’t keen to try it,” she explains. “They didn’t even know it was fermented or made with fungus. So I thought I’d add Caribbean colors and flavors to make it more appealing.” Gremmer doesn’t even make traditional soybean tempeh unless she gets a special request. Instead, she produces 100 pounds of black bean, chickpea, and split pea tempeh every month, along with specials like peanut tempeh marbled with pandan extract.

Over the phone, Gremmer lets out a wistful sigh after telling me about this peanut variety. “It’s something else,” she says with an audible smile. “It’s naturally sweet, then you ferment, which brings a little acid. . . . It’s just incredible. I dip it in hazelnut spread or tahini for a dessert . . . oh my God, it’s perfect.”

If there’s a limit to tempeh’s possibilities, Gremmer hasn’t found it yet. “You know what you should try at home,” she adds, almost in a whisper. “Make hummus with chickpea tempeh. It’s incredible.”

RECIPE: Oseng Tempe with Long Beans

Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.