Tempeh is a soy-based product made from a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans together into a solid mass, or rectangular veggie burger-like patty. Tempeh is similar to tofu in that it is made from soybeans, but that is the only characteristic these two plant-based foods have in common. You might be surprised to learn that tempeh has more than twice as much protein as tofu.
Upon our arrival in Jakarta, we learned right away that tempeh is readily accessible and that most hotels and restaurants are more than happy to replace any animal protein with tempeh. In fact, the locals are big fans of incorporating tempeh into their own meals. As we ventured to Ubud and eventually to a remote area on the island of Lombok, we continued inquiring about tempeh, and once again, we found out that any dish could be easily modified to incorporate tempeh instead of beef, chicken or fish. This was a major win!
So why is tempeh so prevalent in Indonesia?
Well, it turns out that tempeh originated in Indonesia. It is thought to have been first produced on the island of Java as early as 1815.
When soybeans undergo fermentation, the nutritional characteristic and texture of the soybeans change, thus resulting in a soybean that is higher in protein, dietary fibers, and certain vitamins and enzymes. Culturing the beans also transforms them into a more easily digestible form. I was surprised to learn that tempeh has almost as much protein as fish, chicken, beef or pork. However, unlike animal-based proteins, tempeh does not have any cholesterol. If you have ever tried tempeh, you have probably noticed that it has a firm, almost mushroomy texture and a slightly earthy taste.
How is tempeh made?
- The soybeans are cracked, hulled and washed.
- The beans are then soaked and boiled just until they’re soft.
- The beans are then laid out to dry.
- The fermentation process is initiated using the Rhizopus spore. In Indonesia, this spore is grown on cassava. In the U.S., it is commonly grown on rice. The culturing process takes about 18-24 hours.
- Some Indonesian tempeh producers still wrap the tempeh in banana leaves; however, many producers today use plastic bags.
Indonesia’s hot and humid climate provides the perfect conditions for the fermentation process to take place in the open air, whereas most tempeh producers in the U.S. and elsewhere use commercial incubators to create the ideal humidity and temperature conditions.
Can you make tempeh from other types of beans?
Yes, of course! In Indonesia, tempeh is made solely from soybeans, but in the U.S., Europe, and South Pacific, you can find tempeh made from black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, or fava beans. Sometimes, you’ll even find beans that are combined with grains such as quinoa, amaranth, brown rice or seeds such as flax, sesame, or chia.
Back in the states, I tend to buy LightLife tempeh. Most of LightLife’s products are organic, but most importantly, they only use non-GMO soybeans. I especially like their Organic Three Grain Tempeh which contains a blend of brown rice, barley and millet. The Organic Flax Tempeh is also very tasty! Some people like tempeh in it’s unadulterated form, but I like it best when that earthy taste has been masked through a delicious marinade followed by baking or sautéing.
During our time in Indonesia, we enjoyed a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes, all of which incorporated tempeh.
Here are the best of the best.
Indonesian breakfast in Ubud: rice porridge (bubur), tempeh, and steamed greens
Tempeh and tofu marinated with turmeric, galangal candlenuts and lemongrass, wrapped in banana leaves
Thai salad with tempeh and tofu: bean sprouts, glass noodles, green and red bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, cashews, and sesame seeds tossed in a ginger coriander dressing
Gado-Gado: Traditional Indonesian salad of tofu, tempeh, steamed potatoes, bean sprouts, cabbage, and long beans, served with a peanut dipping sauce
Breakfast of tempeh, steamed veggies, and mashed sweet potato
For further reading on tempeh in Indonesia, check out these articles below:
- NPR’s Journey To Java’s ‘Tempeh Village’: Where Soybean Cakes Are Born
- CBS’s photos inside an Indonesian tempeh factory
- This article from the Jakarta Post digs deeper into the politics, economics and science of growing soybeans and producing tempeh in Indonesia.