Before veganism was trending on your Instagram feed, Indonesians were experimenting with soy-based products. This high-protein, cholesterol-free, low-calorie (c’mon, you’re sold after this line) soy food can be cooked in many different ways and made into anything from a main dish to a snack. If you’re on a plant-based diet or just love veggies but are tired of tofu, uncover with me the Javanese treasure that is tempeh.
Tempeh is typically cooked using soybeans but many other beans, grains and even seeds are being made into tempeh. To make tempeh the base ingredients are partially cooked, cooled, then infused with a fungal culture (Rhizopus Oligosporus) that ferments it. As it ferments, the mold grows into a white and fluffy substance called mycelium that bounds the beans, forming a cake-like structure. It’s highly nutritious and each slice tastes like a crunchy, nutty patty. Because it’s fermented, tempeh is packed with umami—a Japanese word used to describe a savory or “meaty” flavor—making it a great substitute for meat.
Origins of tempeh
Tempeh originated in Java, Indonesia, an island lying between Sumatra and Bali, almost entirely of volcanic origin. There are literature references of tempeh around the early 1800s but it’s been debated that it existed even before then due to its large geographical distribution.
There’s still a lot that’s unknown about the origins of this food. However, its story does seem to be somewhat intertwined with the Chinese immigration in Indonesia. Either because they brought the tofu industry to the country and tempeh was created as a by-product when the discarded soybeans that were fungus-infected were found to be edible. Or because the fermentation technique applied to tempeh was similar to what was seen in the fermentation process of soybean koji for their soy sauce.
What we do know is that fermentation was developed by people with considerably less scientific resources than the ones available to us today, at a time when Google was not there to answer any and all questions. Any Kombucha lovers nerding out right now? ✋ Tempeh to this day is a staple food throughout Indonesia—it’s commonly fried and accompanied by spicy sauces.
Eleanor Ford’s tempeh with red chili and palm sugar recipe
Food and travel writer, Eleanor Ford, spent much of her childhood in Indonesia and returned as an adult to research her latest book, Fire Islands: Recipes from Indonesia (£25, Murdoch Books).
The palm sugar forms a sticky glaze, whilst generous lashings of chillies leave a long, lingering burn on the palate. Add some red-skinned peanuts into the mix if you like, frying them to a crisp golden in the same oil as the tempeh.
If you’re looking to run away from the typical tempeh stir-fry, this recipe is a great snack with drinks or a side dish to add a kick to any meal. This elegant specialty is bound to impress any guest. And if you’re reading this during quarantine, why not try it out even if no one’s coming over? We’re all training to become professional chefs, am I rite?
Servings: 4 (as a side dish)
- 60 g (2 oz) dark palm sugar (gula jawa)
- 300 g (10½ oz) tempeh
- oil, for frying
- 5 small red Asian shallots, sliced
- 5 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1–2 red chillies, sliced
- 1 lime leaf, deveined and finely shredded (optional)
Shave the palm sugar into a small pan and add 70 ml ( ⅓ cup) water.
Cook until the sugar has melted and the mixture has bubbled to a dark syrup. Season with a good pinch of salt and set aside.
Slice the tempeh into skinny batons, like nubbly matchsticks. Heat 5 cm (2 inches) of oil in a wok until the oil bubbles around the handle of a wooden spoon. Add the tempeh in batches and fry until nut brown and very crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Pour away all but a tablespoon of the oil from the wok. Add the shallots and garlic and soften over a medium-high heat. Stir in the chillies and lime leaf, if using, and fry until the garlic is pale gold. Add the tempeh and palm sugar syrup and stir-fry until the glaze clings to it. Leave to cool before tasting for seasoning.
Tried making your own version of tempeh at home? Then make sure to share your creation on social media and tag us at @skyhour for a chance to be featured on this article.